The problem with life is that nothing’s pure and nothing’s simple.
It seems I’m measuring time now from the major tectonic shift in my life, my dad’s death at 54, just one day after my girlfriend Janet threw a fantastic surprise birthday party for me. To say the party was a surprise is a bit of an understatement. It was a shock. There was a travel advisory across the Seven County Metro area that whole day. The roads were snow-packed and impassable. I figured I wouldn’t even try to drive the mile and a half to her apartment; instead I strapped on a beat up pair of cross country skis and skiløped my way over to her, fueled by the promise of wild birthday sex.
Just as I got to the apartment and threw my mittens on the counter, twenty friends who’d somehow made their way through the snow, leapt up from behind the big leather sectional and shouted surprise! But seeing Mark, our band’s Ketamine-addled manager, shambling out, glassy-eyed from Janet’s bedroom, mouthing “Happy Birthday to Peter,” was so unexpected it left me woozy. It was enough to make me feel as if I’d fallen into some crazy dream, a dream that ended with us burying my father two days later.
No more than two years after the surprise party and the funeral, life took me on what I can only describe as a stupendous ride. My band moved East, I got a multi-album recording deal, I became a devout Jew, and soon after, I met Maria, the woman I’d wind up marrying by the end of summer. My first recording for Island records after their release of This Father’s Day, which I’d put out on my own in 1985, was called, Gematria. The record title itself was a window into exactly where my mind was at the time: in search.
Gematria is a Greek word, it references the fact that Hebrew letters serve two functions; they have both a numeric value and a letter value. To illustrate, (and for some of you, this will be your first mini-course on Jewish mysticism) the Hebrew letter Aleph equals one, the letter Bet equals two, the letter Gimmel three and so on. It’s been said that someone well versed in the esoteric science of Gematriot is able to peer into the deep mysteries of the Torah. By finding seemingly unrelated words that share identical number values, a learned practitioner can find hidden meanings in the holy texts to solve ancient secrets.
Having been thrown into a kind of existential panic after my father’s death, I was desperate to find answers to secrets as well, to look for anything that might serve as an ordering device for the chaos I felt lost in. The songs on my record had titles that reflected this sentiment; Does It Matter, The Trees Are Testifying, Salt and Ashes, and Waning Moon.
Silent moon looking at the meadowlands I’ve been silent too, looking at all the faces drained of heart and innocence, does it hurt for me the way that it does for you?
I can’t touch you yet I feel your breath, with a longing that is hard to conceive , I can’t hear you yet I sing your tune Waning Moon…
To say I found the answers in Judaism would be mostly untrue. And maybe answers weren’t what I was looking for at all. It wasn’t as if some perfectly logical explanation for what had just transpired could make everything ok. Nothing felt ok. My world had cracked open and though I still had a mother, I felt that for the first time I was very much an orphan. I was suddenly thrust out of the role of boy, and into the role of man. The one thing I knew, and the one thing that Judaism did provide me with was a way back home.
Strange as it sounds I couldn’t help but think of volleyball in those days. I would still be playing the same game, but after my dad died, all the players had rotated. I would be the one serving the ball from now on. I would become, or work to become, the same kind of man to some unknown family that my father was to me.
When we think of lofty ideas, like life’s purpose or God we often make the mistake of forgetting that the so-called big things are no more than a collection of small things.
I’m in a cramped apartment in South Minneapolis auditioning some songs I’ve written for a local rhythm and blues singer named Doug Maynard. It’s a big day for me. This guy seems to like me and at my core I’m unsure of myself. If someone as cool as Doug Maynard invited me to his place, well shit, that in and of itself makes it a great day. I sing him a few things and he nods quietly. Doug’s not a big talker. Finally he chooses one. “Man I think I could do justice to this,” he says. It’s called “My First Mistake.”
“You taste like pepper frosting on a granite cake. Baby fallin’ in love with you was my first mistake.”
A month later Doug is found dead in his living room. Stone drunk and drowned on his own vomit at the age of 40. Before this happened however, he was gracious enough to have introduced me to his manager, who introduced me to a lawyer, (who eventually sued me for half of my publishing) who introduced me to a record producer, named Kenny Vance, (Aka Kalman Rosenberg) who after a meeting on Christopher Street in Manhattan, drove me in his spankin’ new BMW across the Brooklyn Bridge one evening with the lights of lower Manhattan burning behind us.
We arrived at a brownstone in Crown Heights where we were greeted by Kenny’s friend, a Chassidic Rabbi with a long black beard named Simon Jacobson. I liked this Simon guy right off the bat. His eyes reflected some essential paradox, some awareness that being alive is both a source of great humor and great sadness. His wife Shaindy, a petite and very attractive woman around my age, introduced herself with a gracious smile and placed glass bowls of almonds and chocolate covered coffee beans on a yacht-sized dining room table before excusing herself to tend to her young children.
The thing I didn’t get at first was how a big hairy dude like Simon, in an oversize, black polyester yarmulke and a white sleeveless button-up was able to land such a foxy wife. But then again, Crown Heights isn’t Minnesota. I soon learned that around these parts, it wasn’t the guy who could throw a football the farthest that got the chicks. Simon, had another thing goin’ for him. He’s what some folks might call a genius.
When the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, the seventh leader of the Lubavitch Dynasty (and the man considered by some zealots to be the Messiah himself,) would give his weekly Sabbath talks before several thousand of his Chassidim, many believed that his words were too priceless to go unrecorded. The problem was that since writing or the use of electricity on the Sabbath is forbidden, recording the Rebbe’s talks might well have seemed impossible. Enter Simon Jacobson.
Simon’s job, and this is just one aspect of his brilliant mind, was to memorize each of the Rebbe’s talks (along with five other helpers) verbatim and spool it all out after the Sabbath ended on Saturday night. To understand the scope of the job it’s necessary to know that when the Rebbe spoke, it was often for four or more hours straight, without breaks, without notes, and in a manner of cyclical and increasing complexity.
To make things even more challenging, the Rebbe wasn’t just free-stylin at these lengthy talks of his called, Farbregens. Everything he gave over was derived from a compendium of source materials that ranged into the tens of thousands of books. When I once mentioned to Simon (I never call him Rabbi Jacobson) how awed I was at his ability to memorize this much information he looked at me and said, “the memorizing is the least of it, it’s the task of compiling it with the proper source notes that’s the real challenge.” Look,” he said, “everyday I correspond with the Rebbe and he writes me back with perfect editor’s notes. Once I wrote to him that I didn’t understand a particular passage and couldn’t find the source for it. The Rebbe had a sharp sense of humor. He sent me back a mark-up with a big red circle, not just on the sentence I was having an issue with, but around the whole page, with the words, ‘what DO you understand?’ Apparently I didn’t understand much.”
Even for a brain as big as Simon’s it was hard keeping pace with the Rebbe.
Now I’m sitting with Kenny at Simon’s table, looking up at the various paintings of Shtetl life and the Rebbe he’s got hanging on the walls. Aside from them there isn’t a space that isn’t taken up by ceiling high bookshelves filled with Yiddish and Hebrew books; various editions of the Talmud, books on Chassidis (Jewish Mysticism,) Halacha (Jewish law,) and innumerable discourses by the six previous Rebbes of the Lubavtich movement and the Rebbe himself.
Simon offers me some tea and passes me some chocolate-covered coffee beans. After a bit of small talk I just come out and ask, “What’s the deal with those pictures of the Rebbe? It seems sort of cultish to me.” Simon seems cool, not at all defensive. I can tell he sees that I’m not trying to antagonize, I’m just there to get a bead on the situation. “I like the pictures,” he says, “To me, the Rebbe is like a grandparent, he’s like a very inspiring grandfather and I get a lot out of reflecting on the things he says and the way he lives his life.”
This makes some sense to me and Simon continues. “There are people for whom there is no sense of self. People called Tzadikim, they have no need for personal gain. A Tzadik lives only to serve others and they can do anything they wish.” “Really,” I say, trying my best to trip Simon up. “Can they fly?” “I’ve never seen anyone fly,” he says. “But understand, for people like these, the act of flying is no greater miracle than the act of walking.”
This idea stuns me. Not because it’s new. The things that move us most never are, they are things we already know, things we already believe. I must have already believed this idea too, because at this moment, at this table in Brooklyn, with the paintings of the Shtetls and the Rebbe on the walls, and the books, and the almonds, and the chocolate covered coffee beans, I suddenly start thinking about the little known rhythm and blues singer, Doug Maynard. I’m remembering the sound of his voice and simultaneously considering the infinite number, the impossible number, of tiny coincidences that brought me to this particular apartment on this particular night. The thought is so vivid I can hear Doug singing again. Singing most soulfully, most truthfully about the joy, and the sex, and the sweat and pain of the world.
Doug’s voice was his gift. Everyone who heard him loved him for it. It was how he was lifted up and how he lifted us as well. I don’t think that he was any kind of Tzadik, but I believe that while he was singing at least, flying was never a greater miracle than walking.
It wasn’t long after that meeting at Simon’s apartment that I met the Rebbe for the first time. After that, I started becoming more Jewishly observant; keeping Shabbos, eating kosher food, and putting on teffilfin. I had some tools now and everything around me had the potential to be wonderous again. My eyes were open in a way they hadn’t been since I was a small child. The trick was going to be keeping them open.
About a year ago my cousin Jeff asked me what it was like to meet the Rebbe. The first thing I thought of was how could he have been such a dumbshit just sitting around watching Three’s Company, or whatever he was doing at our band house on Busteed Manor thirty years ago, instead of coming with me to Crown Heights for what would turn out to be a life-changing experience. I forgave him though. His dad hadn’t just died and the thought of trudging out to Brooklyn to see an old man in a beard probably wasn’t too exciting for a 23 year old.
I answered Jeff the way I always do, straight up. “You know when you’re on the Internet,” I said, “fishing around for porn and you start going down the rabbit hole, deeper and deeper. First it’s cute co-eds and then you somehow wind up at granny porn and soon you’re sitting there, cum drying on your t-shirt and feeling like the biggest fucking loser ever born, feeling like nothing is possible, that nothing good is ever going to come your way and that you can’t even face yourself in the mirror?” “Sure,” Jeff said. “There’s not a guy alive who doesn’t know that feeling.” “Well,” I say, “meeting the Rebbe was the exact opposite of what I just described.”
We start out with every good intention and because we’re all so deeply flawed, we go off course at least as often as we stay on it. In my case, I can never seem to muster up true self-respect. Every good feeling I have needs to come from some external source, some outside validation. It’s a pity really, and why the hell do you suppose I’m writing all this down, even now? Because I want you to like me and to say, “wow, isn’t Pete great,” and then maybe I’ll feel, at least for the moment, that I’m actually alive, that I’m actually worth something. I mention this because even after my ‘religious awakening’ in Crown Heights I still had the feeling that I wasn’t good enough, that I was just treading water, not really swimming. Even today I’m still waiting for someone or something to say, ‘Peter, you’re good, it’s ok, you can rest now. You can go home.’
It’s late morning and I’m standing in Memphis outside the gates of Graceland Mansion with my friend Wess. Wess’s folks were Bible people, real hard core Christian and as a kid they’d tote him and his siblings around the south to tent meetings and out of the way Baptist Churches. “Welcome brother,” is what those well meaning congregants would say. To which Wess would counter, “I’m not your fucking brother.”
Wess knows the territory down here. I most definitely do not. With my look-at-me-I’m-a-Jew, yarmulke and my fuck you, I-just-got-a-record-deal attitude I turn to Wess and say, “isn’t this whole Elvis thing is a joke? Aren’t these crackers making a god out of this guy? He’s not biting. “The people who came here this afternoon really like Elvis, they’re not idiots,” Wess says, “They’re just huge fans.”
The first thing we see as we start our tour of Graceland is Elvis’s private 707, the Lisa Marie. I think it’s hilarious and ironic when our young tour guide tells us that the seat belts on the aircraft beds were an FAA regulation and not Elvis’s idea. “Yeah right,” I say. “Elvis had no interest at all in bondage.” Wess looks concerned. “The Lisa Marie is kinda sacred to these people,” he says. I tell him to relax. “They’re just a bunch of ignorant assholes.”
Now back from the tour of the Lisa Marie and outside the mansion itself, I cup my hands over my face and pretend to cry. The tour guide stops what she’s saying to the group and she quietly asks, “Sir, is everthin’ awright?” “I’m just thinkin’ ’bout the King Ma’am,” I say.
I snicker. Wess doesn’t.
After a few words about the need to pay proper respect to Elvis’s aunt who still lives on the property, we enter the front door and immediately find ourselves inside a bright green room with stone walls and a waterfall, which Elvis named The Jungle Room.
I guess it was because I was so pumped up and full of myself. Maybe it was that I’d just made a record deal, or because I’d just found religion and started learning about Gematrias and Shabbos, and wearing a yarmulke, or because I was mixing my new record just up the street at the world-famous Ardent Studios, but I had reached the nadir of my existence as a human being that morning. And it culminated with me reciting the words to a Beatle’s song in a lame English accent for all to hear:
“I will never forget Elvis’s immortal words… “I read the news today oh boy. About a lucky man who made the grade…”
Mid-verse, I’m grabbed by my right arm and jerked away from the tour. I’m disoriented, breathless, with the shit scared clean outta me. The light in the room where I’ve been dragged is so dim I can hardly see but I can smell bourbon on the breath of a man, 6’3″, maybe 6’4″ – all raw muscle and bone – as he whispers just inches from my face, “I don’t know who the hell you are, and I don’t give a good god damn, but I’m gonna take you outside and fuck you up!”
His grip tightens on my arm, cutting off the circulation as he drags me outside, the veins in his neck bulging. And then, perhaps only seconds before he rips my larynx straight out of my neck, I have a miraculous life-saving revelation, which rises up from the mist of my subconscious like headlights of a midnight fright train:
‘I’ve done something stupid and very hurtful here today. I’ve turned Elvis, a man of flesh and blood, into some kind of cartoon, some kind of plaything I can use as a joke to get the attention so pathetically crave. I have disrespected his memory in the very place he lived and died. These people who have come here to pay their respects to Elvis, a man more talented, more successful, and more generous than I could ever dream of being are not ignorant, they are far wiser than I. I’m the ignorant asshole here; I’m the total fucking loser.
Chastened by my own thoughts, I look at the man and I say, “As long as I live, I will never again make fun of Elvis Presley.” He stares at me for a moment, spits, shakes his head, and lets go of my arm. “You fuckin’ better not,” he says.
Back inside Graceland I see him watching me as I rejoin the group and move through the Jungle Room and past the pictures of Elvis and Nixon. He studies me as I ponder each weapon in Elvis’s vast handgun collection. I’m monastic in my silence. Wess sees me, he knows I’ve been jolted into a much needed state of humility. He’s says nothing.
We come to Elvis’s grave in the garden behind the great mansion. I kneel and pray there. I pray for Elvis and his father who is buried next to him. Afterwards I think about the immense joy Elvis brought the world with his music. I think about his tragic end at the age of 42 on a cold bathroom floor in this very house. I feel sorry for being such a fool.
As I look back over my shoulder, I see the man who just minutes ago might actually have killed me for that foolishness, for that need to be noticed, to be loved. I nod at him ever so slightly. He nods back. And then, he turns and walks away.
I remain kneeling for a while longer and I cry for my father. I cry because I feel so far from home.