I open the box brimming with old cassettes; most are clearly labeled with familiar half-legible scribbles, the style of which I chose when I was old enough to do so, as a giant fuck you to those who cracked my knuckles with a ruler if my cursive wasn’t up to snuff (but that’s fodder for another missive). Other tape shells remain blank, anonymous, suspect. Not having looked at them in a while, they seem curiously out of step with digital technology, yet their warm familiarity draws me back full tilt, as if through a time machine (music cue: “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” by Pink Floyd). There’s volumes upon volumes of C60’s and C90’s, as if they were breeding while I wasn’t looking. My heart jumps at the possibility of unearthing, revisiting, editing, digitizing for posterity.
Coming across one marked In Heat, I pop open the case, slide the tape into the player, power up and let it rip. At one point during the brash 90’s, I arrested my editing routine and rightly so; these were times of unabashed rawness in popular music; a period when Nirvana’s brittle assault elbowed Michael Jackson’s gloss from Billboard’s number one spot. As a result, the entire session revealed itself, or close to it, replete with between-track banter, false starts, coughs, cackles and some wrong notes. At times, they would prove to be the more treasured parts of the sessions than the songs themselves.
I hear the sound of the cable violating the guitar; sounds being born – then, the 007-inspired riff and finally, that voice, belching lyrics either written minutes before or during a hazy all-nighter, perhaps somewhere in between. The period we recorded this, somewhere in the mid-1990’s, would be our most fertile one as musical partners; where his phrasings and playful utilization of different voices coupled with my riff production and tonal experimentation took the music to another level. The groove is scintillating and our mostly unrehearsed harmonies on the chorus, ones we’ve spontaneously spit up so many times before, leave me dumbstruck. It occurs to me that there’s so much life in these recordings, something that would prove to be ironic later on. Turning up the volume, I am consumed with the breadth of our creative synthesis; a wonderment not easily explained yet naturally discernible. I’m literally swimming in the center of our music; anthems bred by the unique intersection of two varied personalities; smiling, laughing, reveling in the magic we’ve managed to spin for over 30 years. Then it hits me.
He’s dead, I remember. This is never going to happen again.
As if on cue, I awkwardly press the stop button and experience a coldness surging through my torso, an emptiness racing toward my gut. I freeze. Then, I cry. Again.
We met in fourth grade. I’m uncertain how, but for a friendship that’s endured precocious peaks and crestfallen valleys for almost forty-two years, there’s bound to be some details swept by the winds of time. Ours was an intimate one; as close as two straight men can experience. We shared a few life cycles of space and time and even more significant was the added layer of manifesting a bountiful musical alliance, all of which is no small feat.
So, on a cold Thursday night in February 1984, rising from boredom and armed with little else than a left-handed guitar (played backwards), scattered, random ideas (written sloppily), a beat-up boom box (which ate tapes) and two open minds (rendering some bizarre arrangements), a musical entity curiously named Cold Cuts was born (we were both into lunch meats at the time). During thirty-one active years of making music, we recorded literally hundreds of songs and held an uninhibited, spontaneous work ethic where all things were considered, restricting nothing. This meant that we could exercise unreserved creative freedom, and we did. Many people talk about Kevin’s painting talents and indeed, he was a gifted artist, but I can tell you with great certainty that it was Cold Cuts, an open source outlet informing all other branches of his artistic wizardry, that elicited in him the most bliss, fulfillment and gratification.
Conversely, and possibly by virtue of his candor, it would also prove to be the creative tendril that would dial up his most formidable insecurities, possibly because of his raucous (read: clever) wordplay and partly due to his paralyzing fear of failure. This brings to mind our second attempt at a live performance (the first and only complete gig was at his apartment under controlled circumstances in the midst of a drunken party). We were so confident, even cocky, that we would dazzle our audience. We chose an outdoor venue and prepared; dressed in outlandish outfits that would make a costume designer blush and employed a toy rhythm machine to play along with.
As we made our grand entrance up the stairs of the Alpine Boat Basin picnic area, I perceived the stunned faces of on-lookers, recoiling in disbelief as we brazenly soared into our opening rap, “Walking through the woods with a knife in my hand,” strutting around like some emotionally-challenged Beastie Boys imposters. To make matters worse, our “drummer” decided to abruptly switch tempo midpoint during our second song. We negotiated our way through a few minutes more and were graciously rewarded for our efforts by sheer silence. Stone-faced, we retreated, swiftly making our way back down the stairs. We didn’t mention a word of it for the remainder of the day. The following day, however, when the subject was broached, I told Kevin that I believed we were ahead of our time, that mistakes happen and it was really no big deal. But Kevin was convinced that he utterly failed and would never move past it to obtain any resolution (during one of our final conversations, we reminisced about that day and I was still able to sense his uneasiness about it). From that point forward, Cold Cuts, by and large, became a secret society where only a few elite members would be enlisted to contribute.
But the recording sessions were quite another story. I recall making plans to sleep over at his place (where the bulk of the early magic took place) so that we could engage in marathon sessions. We’d create, break for dinner, create more and eventually pass out from the joy of it all. Then, we’d wake up and do it all over again. Our symbiosis was at once exhilarating and exasperating (I was well aware of his idiosyncrasies by this point, and he mine). Still, the abundant output was undeniable. The crime of this story is that not a note of it was ever released to the public and it should have been, because in the wake of 70’s punk came the post-punk/alternative movement of the 80’s and 90’s, continuing to this day with even more experimentation and genre-melding, providing a blank canvas for artists to weave their own style and realize their distinct voice, clearly Cold Cuts territory.
But even more significant than the product was the process; the sheer delight we reveled in painting our canvas. I can’t tell you how many phone calls we shared in the early days (this is before even dual cassette players for duplication were commonplace), holding the phone receiver up to the speaker and rewinding certain parts repeatedly because were laughing so loud we’d miss them. And as my father, who never understood Cold Cuts from the onset, eavesdropped and deemed us “totally tasteless”, we delighted in inadvertently using that label to motivate and amuse us until the end. Our exuberance never faded, even until recently; there was always an underlying cheer factor associated with our sessions and most of the time, this alone was ample reason to keep doing it, even when the relationship became strained or when I was making music more with the substance as opposed to the person, a hard truth to negotiate that became an increasing factor toward later years.
Hence, it wasn’t all gumdrops and rainbows. Hardly. I can recall specific times of utter turmoil where we didn’t speak for long periods of time (I tricked myself into believing that all close friendships warranted a break in the action every now and then for the overall health of the relationship – at the time, this was done for all the wrongs reasons, including inflated ego and immaturity; however, of late, the constant presence of drugs made it virtually impossible to maintain anything resembling reciprocity). Particularly during the past decade, there was an impression of edginess and helplessness resulting in repeated self-destructive acts, more pronounced than ever. And I was front and center for it all, donning many hats – psych ward transporter, blood mopper, holistic consultant, unqualified therapist. I suppose the politically correct thing to say is that I wouldn’t have changed a thing, but given the toll this took on us both, I wouldn’t have hesitated to alter certain aspects. Despite all the aforementioned, ours was an enduring friendship whose profundity survived career changes, failed relationships, family turmoil, multiple relocations and death of loved ones, weaving through our musical mojo, making us near complete.
And now it’s gone.
After some months of disconnection toward the end of his relatively brief and tragic time on the planet, we did manage to experience some closure through a few light conversations. In fact, a few hours before he fell unconscious, we had planned to make a pilgrimage to our favorite vegetarian eatery coupled with a trip to the Jersey shore to look in on his ill mother. I knew something was amiss when he revealed to me that the doctor informed him that there were “a lot of things wrong,” as he coined it, but failed to elaborate on what those things were, even with an open space to express them. In a way, it was expected; you just can’t treat your body like a trash can, consistently feeding it junk food, alcohol, pot, prescription and street drugs, nicotine, stress and negative reinforcement from those around you, at times simultaneously, without eventually perishing; it was merely a matter of time, regardless of the technical cause of death. Luckily, he did continue to practice his art, gifting himself with some reprieve from the demons that kept luring him back. Most likely, he tacked some time on his life doing so. Sing a song and make it good, indeed.
The fact remains, however, that my friend has left us, and as a result, any future efforts to burn genius together has expired with him, and that just sucks, but as I edit our stockpile of recordings, his contagious energy lingers. In the coming days, months, possibly for the rest of my life, I will always be informed of Kevin’s hefty contribution to my life – his tenacious loyalty (he typically championed my efforts, even outside the sphere of our own), passion for merry-making (if laughter translates to prosperity, Ido believe I’m a wealthy man), boundless talents (“doing” Cold Cuts has unequivocally been one of the greatest joys of my life so far) and much more to be revealed. And yes, even through his self-annihilation and subsequent death, gifting me with a more acute appreciation of life. Life, for the living, wishing he was.
Eventually, I return to the task of archiving our music, listening intently with new ears; ones that survive him, ones that have yet to know how to listen without welling up in sorrow. Sifting through, I find some unmarked sessions; these prove to be the last recorded a few years back. Attentive and with new allure, I wonder if he remembered. One particular session, the final in the series, sounds exceptional, like Cuts of yore. It’s all there – the fuzzy riffs, instinctive harmonies, belly chortles; the immediacy of the process. Then, some curious banter, “This is a happy song”, followed by an uncharacteristically dissonant vocal harmony (if you can dignify it in such a way) with an eerie chorus: “I die, you die, they die, we die;” a premonition, perhaps? Or merely an apathetically dribbled verbal conjugation, yet another shared cringe-worthy flashback of classroom terror. On tape, laughter threads the track, possibly at the absurdity of coming full circle but more likely at the uneasiness of its truth.
Next, silence, then “Let’s go get some ice cream.” I ponder all of this – the wordplay, the content, the timing, the lack of completion, the compare-and-contrast element of dairy treats and death. I pause, chuckle, speculate, yet all I come up with is “I hope there’s ice cream where you are.”
And I’m pretty sure you’re laughing at that.