Written in Winter, 2013
For years now I had heard that my old college buddy and bandmate, whom I will call R, had killed himself. I assumed it was true because it fit the facts of what I knew, and because it’s not the kind or rumor that typically gets spread maliciously. But until tonight I had been in a weird position of not knowing with certainty whether this person who, years ago, was a part of my life, was among the number of living, breathing bodies on the earth, or counted with the dead. He was my own personal Schrodinger’s Cat. Tonight I found a death certificate online that fits him: his age, his place of birth. Still no obituary, no article, no details. But tonight I know that R is dead, so tonight I am saying goodbye to him.
I met him during my brief but formative attempt at a college education. We were never best buddies, but we ended up playing in a country band together – my first band. I could neither sing nor tune a guitar but it was a place to start. R was a musical natural. We’ve all known them: people who can pick up any instrument and master it within minutes. He was a nerdy, long-haired Jewish kid from upstate New York who liked Rush and weird comedy music. He fit into the country band just fine because he could literally play anything: in this case, the drums.
There were signs even early on that something was not right. He posted weird shit on the community bulletin board, articles about how HIV doesn’t cause AIDS or how domestic violence by women against men is a rarely reported epidemic. Typical symptoms of a paranoid mind that reflexively rejects the consensus on any issue, reason be damned. I paid that stuff little mind, for better or worse. We were all young, dumb, drunk, hormonal kids trying to determine our identities, and we all did stupid things. I could tell stories on myself that would not cast me in a very good light. Or someone else can if they care to; I wouldn’t deny anything. R didn’t seem much crazier than anyone else to me at the time.
I remember the last musical performance he gave at school, some kind of showcase for his class. He played guitar and sang. His voice was squeaky and nervous and hopelessly nerdy. His guitar playing was a maelstrom of needlessly complicated chords and harmonic progressions: immense talent without structure or purpose. Still, I admired it because it was so resolutely uncool, even as I remember my girlfriend and I wincing in sympathy together.
Then things went really off the rails. He took time off to drive across the country and find the author Tom Robbins, who in R’s view held some kind of key to the meaning of life. The story went that he found some little town where Mr. Robbins lived, I think in Washington or Oregon, and began to stalk and harass him until he was essentially chased out of town by the police.
I forget whether he graduated or dropped out, but he stayed in town and began now to stalk and harass his ex-girlfriend. I don’t know how bad things got. Probably pretty bad. I’m not making excuses for him and I’m sure there are a lot of people around who remember him with anger, hate, or fear. All I can say is he was ill. I found out how ill a while later.
I too dropped out of school, and ended up living in Chicago with another friend, a friend who had also been in that country band with R and I. We set ourselves up in a little apartment in Logan Square, barely-furnished, cockroach-ridden, and, to us, pretty much perfect for two kids who wanted to be Townes Van Zandt. We drank Steel Reserve and Thunderbird wine, played music, and explored the city. Then one day we got a phone call from R. He said he was in Oregon and had just returned from a trip around the world, financed by his mom’s stolen credit card (R, like a number of the people I knew in college, came from an upper level of society that remains mysterious to me). Now he had landed in the Pacific Northwest with no money and no prospects. He had bought a car with his last few hundred dollars and wanted to know if he could come stay with us in Chicago; otherwise he would end up on the street. How would he afford the trip, we asked. He would steal gas along the way; he would hope the car held out; he would make it happen.
We said yes, of course. You help a friend in need, if you can. He hadn’t burnt any bridges with us, yet. There was the additional bond of being musicians together – some of you may know what I mean. So we told him that, yeah, if he could make it, we’d put him up.
The guy made it, thieving his fuel across the country in a dilapidated beater that must have run partly on sheer madness. It was clear upon seeing him that he had really gone downhill. He had just traveled around the globe, staying only a day or two in numerous different countries, on various continents, always continuing to move because the Muslims were reading his mind (this was shortly after 9/11). His relations with his family were, as one would imagine, pretty frayed. The money was gone. And here he was – smelling ripe, eyes wide, crazy as shit but still very charming and funny – and sleeping on our couch, indefinitely.
I forget how long he stayed. It became evident pretty quick that we couldn’t let him stay for too long. We did record some music with him. I forget where we got the drum set but we got it. We set it up and he played his ass off. R was so good. Somewhere I still have those tapes – Type II cassettes of just his drums, isolated, as he played along to our pre-recorded tracks. The album we made is mostly shit – I still wasn’t ready to be putting my stuff to tape, and still not letting that stop me – but that dude was an animal. And I guess that was the last thing he recorded.
He made some attempts to find work as a day laborer, standing on the corner with Mexican migrants. But it didn’t work and we couldn’t support him. We had to ask him to move on. He left graciously and went back home, where he was institutionalized. His brother, who we’d never met, gave us the address of the place where he was being treated and we put together a care package for him. I don’t remember what all was in there except I sent a book about Willie Nelson. R loved this weird Willie song called “I Never Cared For You,” and had lobbied for us to play it back in our college band.
We lost touch after that. The last I heard about him was from his brother. It pains me to write this. His brother emailed me and told me R was out on the streets in New York City. That he was, somehow, sleeping in the boiler room of a porn shop (can I possibly be remembering that right?). His brother asked me to get in touch, said R had few friend left.
I didn’t get in touch.
I’m not sitting here flagellating myself over it, don’t get me wrong. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which my getting in touch with R would have saved his life. But it was the wrong decision. I fucked up. You should always reach out to a friend in need. I was wrapped up in my own nonsense and I’d been through the wringer with R and I wasn’t prepared to jump back into that. So I didn’t get in touch.
That was the last I heard of him. Years later, back in California, I ran into another former member of my college band, and was told that R had killed himself. For years I looked for confirmation, and I still can’t even find an obituary, much less a story of what happened, but tonight – tonight I found confirmation that R is dead.
R is dead; he has been for 8 years. R was a nerd, a psychopath, a musical genius, and my friend. I neither make excuses for his bad behavior nor do I make apologies for mourning him, no matter what he did. Tonight I leave him to God, finally knowing that he is no longer on the earth, and I mourn for this young man, who died in Rockland County, New York, in 2006, at the age of 27.
R, you were a hell of a drummer and a sweet friend and I’m sorry you got saddled with that fucking shit-show of mental illness. Rest easy. I remember you. I remember your eyes and the way you played.