How the world goes round

Danzig (he replies to Greg Burk), twenty-five years a rock star already… I remember seeing him with the Misfits at Al’s Bar (I think Saccharine Trust went on before them, can’t remember who else.) Must have been, what 1983? ’84? I remember being minorly disappointed that they didn’t play “Attitude”, of which a terrific live version existed on some I think Flipside comp I lost track of decades ago, but they did a great “Astrozombies”. Funny how things that bug you then wouldn’t bother you at all later, not one bit. Saccharine Trust kind of blew them off the stage in a weird LA way tho’. Or whoever it was that opened did. At the time LA punk rock, some of it, was heading outward while NYC’s was so conservative…which is what became the legacy, actually. Ramones/Misfits. All that explosive creativity reduced to a simple formula. But I think I’ve lost my way here. I was going to mention that I opened once–or was that twice?–for Corrosion of Conformity, back before they were a three piece. They weren’t metal yet, just scary intense. I remember their singer–who onstage was  completely insane, the skinheads backed off, intimidated–was the son of their road manager, who was an old hippie Mom and nice enough but she beat some guy up soon afterwards at a show and he had to be hospitalized and both she and her son–who had pitched in–were jailed for a spell. Hence both he and she were outta the band.  I was impressed. I believe the beat up dude was a promoter in the process of ripping off the band. You can guess where my sympathies lie. Anyway, I was in this completely mad power trio then. The leader Charles Joseph Renfield III (whose real name was Charlie Berger until watching Dracula on acid) actually went clinically mad towards the end of the band, the voices, unrestrained by a weekend of angel dust, kind of took hold and he joined a local offshoot of an offshoot of a splinter group of somebody’s Nazi Party. The other member of the party later committed suicide by motorcycle in one of Orange County’s trickier canyons. We found that out much later. Charlie–well Chuck, as we all called him, when he was not in the his band persona, which was increasingly not that often–was a rather zen nazi, self-admitted, which I could never figure out but it rendered him sweet in a nazi kind of way. He could have been Reichblumenfuhrer. He soon got strung out on smack which broke a lot of hearts but settled him down. Certainly it quieted the evil little nazi voice in his head. He moved to Tacoma to live near Mom, bounced in and out of mental hospitals and on and off smack, apparently got married somewhere and bore a son, and died of an overdose of heroin in a Tacoma parking garage on an Easter Sunday. I think that was fifteen or twenty years ago. How time flies when you’re dead.

He’d been writing a rock opera, I remember, writing it for years. I’ve forgotten the title. He couldn’t write music but he used to strum bits of it for us, sing us passages, hum the string parts he dreamed up. No idea if he ever sung or strummed or hummed any of it into a cassette recorder. I doubt it.  It’s just gone. I sometimes wonder how many things like that are just gone. Throughout the history of the world, I mean, there are always dreamers, always have been. They dream up rock operas and novels and revolutions, movies and towering skyscrapers and flying machines. I wonder what enormous cathedrals never left some monk’s fevered brain. I know of at least four vast novels that never left mine. One was about a Russian, another about a guy in the trenches in WW1. One was about a guy in Connecticut, and one was about a detective in Cairo, Illinois. There’s nothing but scraps now. You can’t do much with scraps but wonder.

But  what’s the point. They would have lousy novels, all of them. And Chuck’s rock opera no work for the ages. And the cathedral in my monk’s fevered brain would have soared too high and tumbled down, smashing workmen and monk alike. People would come ever after to the heap of granite blocks and look up and wonder just how far it was supposed to go. Some of them, the damn fools, would dream up their own doomed cathedrals. And that is how the world goes round.

A shame about Chuck, though. He’d been such a sweet, funny kid, even brilliant in his own odd way until the madness took hold. I never had as much fun bashing a drum kit as I did with Chuck, not even before in that thrill of being in my first rock band, or later, playing to audiences who didn’t stare bewildered or angry even. Madness changes everything. The voices. Who knows why they take command. Maybe the drugs, there are drugs everywhere when you join a band in the bowels of the big city. Some of us avoid them, some of us can’t help themselves. Or maybe it’s just growing up. The brain is huge then, you know, in your young twenties, bigger than it will ever be*. A huge mess of neurons and synapses and there’s so much room for things to go wrong in all that, it doesn’t take that many neurons connecting the wrong way to turn someone into a raving lunatic. But no one knew that then. Well they did, a lot of it, but they didn’t know what to do about it. They just locked you up, gave you all kinds of pills or big zaps of electricity. It was a bad time to be nuts. It’s so much better now. People functioning, living normal lives who once might have been standing on street corners arguing with someone no one else could see. I might still be hanging with Chuck now, laughing, remembering the crazy bands we were in. But it’s best not to dwell on these things. People with HIV live forever now too. People with cancer. Or ghastly head wounds from Iraq. Some people keep living even if they don’t want to. The miracle of modern medicine. My wife died once but she is still here like she’d never been dead at all. I think about that every day. Funny thing, life.

Funny how that power trio wound up, too. The bassist moved to Nashville and sold used Cadillacs. Later he came out as gay. Chuck came out a junkie. Me, I came out a jazz critic. Maybe that’s how the world goes round, too.



* The brain is huge then, you know, in your young twenties, bigger than it will ever be…. In volume, that is. You actually have more neurons at birth but the pruning process has already begun even in the womb. I have no idea why that is. Perhaps some are transformed into other kinds of cells during fetal development. And perhaps it’s this fetal surfeit of neurons that has made the increase in brain size possible, because there are so many neurons available for use. I’m guessing here.