Photo by Thomas R. Stegelmann
My friend Flip didn’t read, he told me, because he was all about music. Slick, shiny, high-gloss music. Nothing got him more excited than discussing “production values.” He’d play dance remixes for me and practically conduct them as some new version of an awful song stomped and restomped its way through a cathedral-like reverb chamber for ten endless minutes, pointing out how the original flow was subdivided now, with sections being brought in and taken out or cut up further into fragments that were transformed to rhythmic elements, and how brilliant it all was, as if it were some epic, landscape-altering gift to contemporary culture. Every song was a puzzle to him, something he needed to dismantle and reconstruct for himself so he could begin building his own empire. My lack of enthusiasm about any of it was part of my larger problem.
My tastes were different, though I was no musician. I went for punk, mostly. Plug-and-play music, the scruffier and angstier the better. Prince’s music was about the only thing Flip and I could agree on. But somehow, as friends, we clicked.
My friendship with Flip had started in upstate New York where life was slow and attitudes were conservative. If you were a kid with any sort of ambition or dream for yourself then it was a place you knew you had to get out of as soon as possible. While Flip always prepped his thick brown hair and checked his look before making a move – even if we were just going to the Price Chopper to buy cigarettes – I was a perpetual slob in jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, and distressingly thinning black hair. Flip wanted to make it as a musician, which also meant he wanted to be famous and have money and any woman he wanted. He never had a problem attracting women and, though he was self-taught as a piano player, he had a lot of ideas about music. So, after a few years of living in Albany and not finding any good reason to stay, he figured he was ready. He made his move with a couple of friends to New York City.
I had nothing – no money, no ambition, no desire. I didn’t burn and seethe. I just imploded and drank too much. Further aspects of my larger problem. I knew I had to get out of Albany but didn’t know how. About a year after Flip moved, I wound up in New York accidentally, like a package mailed to the wrong address.
Once we reconnected in the city of dreams, Flip was always trying to put a fire under me, to get me excited about something. I think my directionless, lazy, time-wasting ways – which had survived the move completely intact – pissed him off and worried him. Here I was in New York City and what was I doing? Reading in the park. Reading in bars. Reading at home. I was still the same naked mole rat, sniffing and shuffling my way through a series of dumpy underground tunnels when mere inches away was nirvana.
What I could never explain to Flip, though I had tried, was that reading was a form of writing to me, a substitute for the writing I was eventually going to get down to doing myself. What I couldn’t explain to myself was that reading was not only an escape from the writing I wasn’t doing, it was also part of a larger delusion I had which was this: by immersing myself in a book, I was somehow slowing down time. And each new book I picked up carried with it a guarantee that there would be time in my future to sit and read it.
“At some point, you’re going to have to get really selfish if you want to do anything with your life,” Flip would say.
And I’d always tell him, “I know. It’s cool. You do what you need to do. I can take care of myself.”
I was waiting. I wanted to see him become famous and have all of his women because, in my life, I’d never seen anyone do anything before. I wanted to know it was possible that someone could get what they wanted – even if I thought what they wanted was dumb – before I stepped out and tried it myself. He was my test case, my surrogate, and I was his loyal audience. We used each other, but neither one of us was aware of that.
We were having a coffee and a cigarette one yawning Saturday afternoon when Flip said he wanted to check in on Shane, another musician friend I’d met a few times before, to see if he’d made a decision about playing in a band with him. Flip was anxious to snag him before anyone else did.
Shane had lived in the East Village since the mid ’70s. (“You have no idea,” was all he would say about that era.) He’d played with glam New York Dolls-types of bands that went nowhere. He’d played in rock bands that went nowhere. He’d played in a couple of quick, three-chord punk bands that went nowhere. He had opened for some big bands. He had a reputation. Somewhere in the midst of almost making it, he’d become a junkie, but he’d eventually managed to pull himself out. By the time I first met him in 1985, he’d been clean for six years.
Being in his mid-thirties, Shane seemed old to the early-twenties me. That he didn’t drink or do drugs of any kind made him seem even older. Like the other junkies in my neighborhood, Shane looked bloodless, his skull shrink-wrapped in a thin tissue of near-gray flesh, his mouth a mobile fissure outlined with weirdly purple lips. Yet, unlike the other junkies, his eyes shone like bright green suns surrounded by whites as bright as chalk. He also didn’t have the zero-body-fat, pure-muscle physique of a junkie. Shane, in fact, was a little paunchy, and wore his shirts untucked to disguise that fact. He was irreversibly healthy now.
And it was this healthiness, and the fact that he had no visible style or edge beyond another version of the same black leather jacket that everybody else had, that made me wonder what Flip was after in Shane.
We walked to his building on Second Avenue and hauled it upstairs.
Aside from a few guitars sitting out in stands, a twin bed, and a couple of bookshelves he’d taken in off the street, Shane’s place was empty. It echoed when you walked through it. The walls were rag-painted a buzzing sea green, and the windowsills, doors, and molding were the high-gloss black of fingernail polish. Shane liked to burn a brand of incense that always smelled like soap to me. He said it calmed him.
Shane had told us that the stuff he used to have had either been stolen and he never had the money to replace it, or he’d sold it to buy drugs. Once he got clean, he said, he realized that most of the stuff he owned had been garbage to begin with. Crap that a consumer culture wanted you to think was your reward for giving your life away to your job. Heroin, which he’d thought would lead him to some deeper, soulful reservoir of feeling and lift his talent to another level, nearly killed him. But getting clean helped him admit to himself that the only thing that might get him to that musical oasis was discipline and hard work. There could be no other way. He played every day, he said, every day.
After the usual heys and what’s ups (no handshakes – Shane didn’t like to shake hands with anyone if he didn’t have to), I asked Shane if it was okay if I looked at his books.
“Sure,” he said. “Just be careful you don’t get burned.” He held my look for a beat to see if I understood him, and then turned back to Flip.
Aside from some pocket paperback, sci-fi stuff – all of it arranged alphabetically and pushed flush to the very edge of the shelf – Shane read Western philosophy, from Socrates to Nietzsche to Sartre, and Eastern spirituality, from Vedic and Hindu texts that I barely recognized to the Hare Krishna books that its freaky disciples would thrust at anyone who looked at them. I’d only just started moving in these sorts of directions myself – part of some idea I had then that maybe philosophy or religion could help me figure out what to do with my life – so I was happy to quit trying to act cool, and disappear into my usual withdrawn state.
The religion and philosophy books were in rough shape: blown-out, battered, the spines nearly unreadable from the deep cracks running through them. Shane had wrestled with these things and they’d fought back. I saw that he had the same Vintage paperback copy of The Gay Science that I had, and pulled it out.
As I sat on the floor pondering all those Nietzschean exclamation points, Shane came over and asked what I was looking at. I held the cover up to him and he took the book from my hand, keeping it open to the page I’d been reading, a page the book had automatically fallen open to.
“I told you to be careful,” he said, and began to read the same page.
The last thing I’d read had been this:
“The strongest ideas and passions brought before those who are not capable of ideas and passions but only of intoxication! And here they are employed as a means to produce intoxication! Theater and music as the hashish-smoking and betel-chewing of the European! Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica? – It is almost the history of ‘culture,’ of our so-called higher culture.”
The lines were underlined in red felt-tip pen.
A long, quiet minute passed while Flip and I watched Shane read. I looked over at Flip and he made an annoyed face.
“Yeah, that’s it, man,” Shane said, handing the book back to me. “People don’t get it, only the artists. Everyone else is like some sick junkie, looking for a distraction from reality, which nobody wants to deal with because nobody knows how. They aren’t up to it.”
I nodded, knowing he wouldn’t listen to anything I might have to say, and turned back to the book.
Flip and Shane resumed their conversation but the mood was off now.
Things stood this way – Flip was acting like he had an offer that Shane should seriously consider (with the implicit suggestion that it might be the best he could expect for someone of his age), while Shane seemed to be insulted by Flip’s condescension, seeing him as just another kid with too much attitude in a neighborhood lousy with them.
A deeper problem that hadn’t come up yet was the fact that Flip and Alex, the other guy in this band-to-be, hadn’t really written any songs. Though they had one that had a “killer” guitar part and a chorus of:
Flip had told me about this fragment a number of times. I was embarrassed for him but never said a word.
At least he’s doing something, I thought.
Bored, Flip walked over to one of Shane’s guitars, picked it up, and hit one of the few chords he knew. Flip had been trying to teach himself how to play guitar because it made for a cooler profile on stage; definitely cooler than keyboards.
Shane’s eyes went wide the moment Flip grabbed his guitar. He reached out to stop him, started to make some kind of sound but shut himself off and shoved his hand in his pocket instead. Flip, not seeing this at all, attempted to tune the strings but – Shane being Shane – they were already tuned.
Flip hit another chord a little less successfully than the first.
“So, what do you think?” he said. “We’re gonna start rehearsing tomorrow. You wanna come by?”
The cigarette artfully dangling from the corner of Flip’s mouth was curling smoke into his eyes so he stuck it, like he’d seen other guitar players do, on the end of one of the guitar’s trimmed strings.
Shane lurched forward, plucked the cigarette off the string with his precise daddy-longlegs fingers, and threw it on the floor. He pulled the guitar from Flip’s hands and stomped to a case lying on the floor by his bed.
Flip laughed out an offended, “Whoa!”
Shane was on his knees with the guitar flat across his thighs, his back turned slightly as if he were shielding it from us. He was breathing deeply and running a cotton cloth up and down the strings.
“Look, man,” he said, “I’m sorry. I just I hate it when other people play my guitars.”
“Yeah,” Flip said. “No shit.”
“It’s just that the strings get dirty so easily and when the strings get dirty the sound dies.” He ran the cloth up and down each string, stopping to examine first the string and then the dirt captured on the cloth after each pass. Then he folded the cloth over to a clean patch and made another pass. “That’s why I keep the action high, too. I like that clean ring. It’s a whole aesthetic, you know, I’m not just fucking around.”
Flip gave me a look that said, Can you believe this guy is explaining music to me?
“It’s harder that way,” he said, “but that’s what I want. It strengthens my hands. Keeps me aware.”
He held his right hand out to Flip like a claw. “Check out my callouses. I play every day for about an hour then I clean the strings and play for another hour. And I just keep going like that.”
Between the explaining and the cleaning, Shane seemed to be talking himself back down. “I wash my hands all the time,” he said softly. “Ten, twenty times a day. Before I play and after. Everything just feels better that way.”
When he was finished, he laid the guitar down in the case, closed it, and slid it under his bed. He knew he’d fucked up the gig with Flip but he seemed relieved about it.
For some reason he turned to me and said, “I’ve done the Dionysian stuff, you know? I’m in a more Apollonian phase. Cleaner, you know? More pure.”
I nodded again.
He looked at me like I was everybody else and said, “Never mind.”
Flip and I left soon after.
I understood something about Shane only later: surviving had ruined him. I would see him a few more times after that. Sometimes his hair was blond, sometimes it was brown. Once it was green. For a year or two he had a girlfriend. Once, when we actually spoke, he told me that he wasn’t playing so much any more. He didn’t give a reason why beyond a secretive shrug. After a while we both stopped saying hello.
I saw Flip last year in a comic book shop, though he didn’t see me. We’d drifted apart and I hadn’t spent time with him in many years. I was surprised to see he had a little girl with him, clutching his pant leg while he walked down an aisle, looking at comics but not picking anything up. He moved slowly, with an adult exhaustion and sorrow that was unfamiliar to me. His daughter looked bored, like she just wanted to go home.
I’d heard Flip was married and was part owner of an art moving company. Now I knew he had a child.
I don’t usually go into comics shops. I’d stopped in because I wasn’t ready to go home yet, to go and sit back down at my desk and write. I was wasting time I had no business wasting. But I needed to believe that I still had time to waste. I still need to believe it.
I held my breath and watched Flip walk by me. Then – and I still haven’t forgiven myself for this – I slipped out and went home.
Damian Van Denburgh is a 2011 fellow in Non-Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has had residencies at the Millay Colony and the MacDowell Colony, and his work has been published in Knee-Jerk and Fourth Genre. His essay, “The Spell of My Father’s Wedding Ring,” ran in the Modern Love column in the New York Times this past February. He works as a freelance writer in New York City.