A year after my dad died and a year before our band, Sussman Lawrence left for New York, I got a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature, had chosen to name her bear after the heretical Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, from the 1700’s.
Spinoza was seen as harmful and at odds with the views of the Jewish establishment of the times and he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a charem, by the Dutch Jewish community that he lived and worked in. Aside from the fact that he was shunned and reviled for his modernist views no one had much bad to say about him as a person, aside from the fact that, “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
Ruth Grosh was New Age before anyone had heard the term. She’s currently living with native tribespeople in northern British Columbia and has changed her name to Rachel Owa. I don’t know this for fact, but I can imagine Rachel as the first one in the sweatlodge and the first one to receive visions of her flying amongst a flock of purple crows in some light-filled astral realm.
Back when she was still Ruth, Rachel commissioned me to write ten songs, which played off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards the technology seems crude, but at the time, and with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear and the music were issuing directly from the bear’s cheery snout. As for the voice, it was decided after some deliberation that not only should I write and sing the songs, but that I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.
Each of the eleven cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just over a year the bear became a huge success; not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. My twenty-two year-old voice was used to calm the pain of rape victims, grief stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, and children on cancer wards all across the country. Aside from all the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band used to set sail for New York City in the spring of 1985; five band members in a Buick Regal station wagon, and two roadies in a Dodge cube van.
When we finally reached New Jersey we weren’t surprised to find that no one was particularly interested in renting a house to a rock and roll band. As always, necessity insisted I be both resourceful and deceitful. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a hapless real estate agent named Carol Estes that we’d found advertised in the Bergen County Gazette. I explained to Carol that we were five medical students, enrolled this fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and to study.
The following morning as the rest of the guys wait outside in the Buick, my cousin Jeff, the band’s keyboard player, and I show up at her office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a thrift shop and carrying a responsible looking brief cases. I boned up on some medical terms as well, in case Carol needed proof of our actually being medical students. But there had been no need, we had the cash and I seemed honest enough; honest enough to let her know that a few of us were also part time musicians and that there might be some music playing – quietly of course – from time to time, to ease the strain of our intense studies.
Not more than a week later we signed the lease papers and our cube van, which had been newly (and completely) christened with graffiti from our debut gig at CBGB’s the previous night, pulled into the driveway of 133 Busteed Manor in Midland Park, New Jersey and unloaded four beer stained amplifiers, seven guitars, a drum set in large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire PA and lighting set up. Trying to be as discreet as possible lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we lugged the gear straight into the garage, up a short flight of stairs, and into the living room. Aside from some bad scrapes on the hardwood floor and a hole or two in the walls on our way up, we were quick and efficient. Up and running by late afternoon, we began rehearsing straight away, our new wave music blaring into the New Jersey autumn night.
About a month after settling in, Ruth reached me by phone in the squalor of our band house collective. I took the phone as far out of the kitchen as the pig-tail cord would allow so I could hear Ruth over the din of our loud and horrible suppers of turkey ham and Progresso soup. She revealed to me that some psychic friends of hers had explained that I had only a few months left on the planet.
“What” I asked, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing it seemed, although her nonchalance didn’t make me feel any less troubled. “They want to know if you want to come in for a consultation.” I was flying back to Minneapolis later that week anyway and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving was about.
On the morning of my appointment with the psychics, my mother is flitting around the kitchen. She simply can’t stop chattering. She has a lunch date this afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony. It’s her first since my Dad died almost two years ago.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asks. “Be honest.” “Yeah, it looks great,” I say. To be perfectly honest I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother flit around the house like a schoolgirl, primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died and given all that she’d been through it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honks outside. It’s Ruth. She and I drive together to Brooklyn Center as new age flutes intone on her cassette deck. We arrive after twenty minutes and park the car near a long row of newly built town houses.
A man and a woman in their early forties greet us at the front door. They appear to be some kind of husband and wife psychic tag-team, and they begin headlong by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I know. “We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” they say. I figure it’s some method of showing off their psychic abilities. “Just the first names are enough.”
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable ability, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. I figure I’ll start the game with him. “Ok, Jeff,” I say. The two psychics are now seated in old fashioned armchairs facing one another. Suddenly, they’re both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I know each of them because Jeff’s given them names. When his thumbs bend downward spasmodically, he calls that one “Southerner.” When his palms flex upwards in a hand-waving motion, he calls it, “Reckless Greeter.” When his eyebrows pinch together, his lips compress, and his eyes blink uncontrollably, he affects the demeanor of someone very curious about his environment. He calls that one simply, “Curious Man.” Now the corners of both psychic’s mouths are forming narrow half smiles, their eyebrows are squeezed together and their eyes are blinking, open – shut – open – shut, perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouts. Her husband, whose hands begin to flawlessly copy Jeff’s Reckless Greeter, adds, “Yes, the music. Can you feel it just pouring out of him?”I’m thinking this has got to be some kind of trick. It’s astonishing but I’m not convinced. Next, I say “Beverly,” my mother’s name, and they both instantly giggle. It’s annoying to see adults giggle at any time but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, well, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about.” The woman offers. “Yes,” says the man. “Something she’s afraid of, but she’s also very excited.” Almost in unison, they say, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today.”
If these these two freaks wanted my undivided attention, they have it now. The room is silent for minute or more. I don’t dare speak. They have scared the shit out of me with that last trick. Soon, they broach the subject I came to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet,” the woman asks. I pause, thinking it over for longer than a normal person might. “No,” I tell them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.” This seems to relieve them and the man says, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence and by working as single-mindedly as you have been, to get a record deal with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity, you’ve been in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.” His wife takes over.
“What you need to do is to uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and that you love reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love rather than music you think will sell.” Almost without thinking I say, “There’s this song that I wrote for my dad on Father’s Day that I’ve never really played for anyone. It’s something I wrote with the sole intention of expressing my feelings for him before he died.” “Why not put that out as your next record,” says the man.
It’s such a simple idea and it moves me from where I’ve been, where I’ve been locked up, to another place.
Somehow, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the pain of my father’s dying, that it was simply time now to grit my teeth and persevere. It’s been two years for God’s sake. But I suppose the process of mending is never as pat as that. As much as I need to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and the rawness of his death, I suppose I need to face it again and again. Now today, at this moment, I really don’t want to die.
In some ways my father’s passing, painful as it was, provided me with a bridge to traverse. It allowed me to transcend so many of the petty concerns I might have gotten wrapped up in otherwise. While he was sick and suffering in the last five years of his life I was in a far different mental place than my friends. I’m not saying it made me wise or anything like that, it’s just that great tragedy can, for the few willing to accept its lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s profane.
While my dad was enduring his final sojourn into the world of stage-four lymphoma I was working very hard to get famous. I felt I needed to do something great before he died, something he would be proud of, whatever that might have meant.
As I look back on this now, I don’t believe anything is missing. I know that my father is with me in whatever way it is that a spirit hovers with those beloved and left behind. I also know that he was proud of me then, and that he is proud of me still.