Brian is a friend of mine from New York. He's an award winning journalist, record producer (he did the early Folkways album for Lucinda Williams), singer/guitarist/songwriter, father, and many other things I'm sure. "How To Prepare For the Past" is an excerpt from a longer work. I'm honored to be able to offer it to you here. -LJM 01/04/05
Click Here to listen to Brian's song "As a Man Gets Older"
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE PAST
"After all, what is there but love & death & the beach ... "
That winter it didn't snow, though in the mornings you could
smell frost in the air. It was cold and getting colder. My mother, my sister
and I travelled down to the West Indies, our first trip together since
before my father had died . We went to a resort that we'd stayed at when I was
a child, but in the intervening years it had changed from a small and
private retreat to an exclusive club where uniformed doormen stood guard over
long, white beaches.
That first afternoon by the pool, I watched a balding man flag
down a passing waiter. Lying on a deck chair, his belly and forehead
glistening with sun tan oil, he snapped his fingers at the elderly black waiter
making the rounds.
"Boy. Over here, boy."
The waiter stood stock still for a second.
"Sir, do you think it's right to call me 'Boy' when I'm old
enough to be your Daddy?"
"If my father was still serving drinks at your age, I'd call him
'Boy' too," he shrugged. "Bring me a Planters Punch."
I had not been looking forward to this trip. My sister, fifteen
years older than I, was just getting out of a long and unhappy
marriage, and I was just trying to get into some sort of a career. My lifelong
affair with music was turning out to be a platonic relationship, my devotion to it largely unreciprocated, and I showed an extraordinary talent for
finding the most incompetent, unstable and pyschotic managers and agents
available, quickly turning down anyone with the slightest degree of savvy or
experience. One prospective manager, who had once locked me in his
office, demanding to represent me, I had figured for a lunatic. The fact that
he was now representing Henry Kissinger and Steven Spielberg (and that I
was currently headlining Kenny's Castaways for $75 a night plus drink
tickets) had not escaped my notice.
By constantly haunting nightclubs, and the hallways of record
labels and publishing companies, I could count on usually coming up with the
bare necessities: a gig now and then at a downtown club; qualified interest
from a major label (such interest mostly translating as: If someone else
seems about to sign you, we'd be happy to take you on); work on the
soundtracks of independent features and industrial films (often with such promising titles as "Frostbite!" and "Is This The Beach?"); and the occasional
expense-account meal with a record executive whose more prosperous or
eagerly-anticipated lunch-date had cancelled at the last minute. Any
way you looked at it, it was a pretty shoddy existence.
None of which seemed to bother my girlfriend. Perpetually
unemployed, she had a far more romantic view of life on the fringe than
I did (her view no doubt bolstered by the fact that as a young &
beautiful girl, with dark Latin looks, she would always have admirers to take her to dinner or to parties if I was indisposed or out of the picture).
On our last holiday, we had gone to Paris together and, riding
the Metro, been confronted by a couple of ragged Americans with guitars
round their necks. They staggered on at the Odeon stop, pushing their way
through the closing doors, and began to sing and play terrifyingly out-of-tune
versions of Neil Young songs, trying to simultaneously keep their
balance, remember the words and pass around a worn leather cap. The combination was beyond them.
A tiny Arab child in a red snowsuit stared at them open-mouthed;
an older lady with bags of groceries in her arms pushed past them angrily,
stepping on one of their feet for good measure; other than that, the
remaining passengers studiously ignored them, turning to their papers
with a renewed interest or looking even more carefully at the colorful,
ever-present posters advertising dating clubs and dermatologists. My
girlfriend squeezed my arm.
"Listen," she sighed, "don't worry. If things get really bad, we
can always give up the flat in New York and come over here. Travel. You
could play guitar in the subway, and I could pass a tambourine around or
maybe accompany you on the flute. It would be an adventure!"
I don't think I'd been so depressed in years.
A few days before, I'd stopped in to visit Leonard Cohen, who
was passing through town, and I'd noticed that he didn't have his guitar with him.
"Oh, I never travel with a guitar anymore. I have a little
keyboard now." He pulled out a small Casio, just a little larger than a
good-sized paperback. "It's great for hotel rooms, and I can even work out ideas on planes if I need to. I can wear headphones. And it's got a built in
rhythm box, so you can find the right tempo. See?"
What I saw was an odd glint in his eye that said: At least I no
longer have to walk through metal detectors at airports, through train
stations in foreign cities, past sidewalk cafes and fountains, past the
looks of beautiful women and the stares of unlovely bankers, saddled
with a guitar case, all my weaknesses exposed, all my hunger showing.
For there is a certain romance and dignity to wandering through
the world accompanied by a cello or double-bass, the solidity and weight of
the instrument giving its owner an unexpected depth or gravity, a presence;
and a violin or viola case bespeaks a dark sensitivity, a many-sided soul
with a copy of Rilke on the bedside table. Even an electric guitar, sheathed
in a soft case and slung over the shoulder or tucked in a hardshell and held at the side, comes with the promise of voltage, of eventual power and
volume and noise.
But for a grown man to wander through life with an acoustic
guitar case by his side is an open admission of needs that will never be
filled, of sadness and desperation, of leaks in the basement, a kick-me sign on the back of the coat, a feed-me sign at the back of the eyes. It signifies
poverty of the spirit, of the pocket, of the imagination; it suggests
that the road not taken might have been the right road after all; and it
presupposes a life lived at the back of the line, at the close of the
party, at the bottom of the glass.
There were exceptions, of course. Segovia had someone to carry
his guitar; the Delta bluesmen were natural aristocrats, as were Spain's
flamenco players, men all of them, not weepy overgrown boys, but
adventurers, poets, and thieves, standing tall and sly. Mi corazon, mi
corazon. The men don't know, but the little girls understand. But I was
not one of them, and I had already pictured a disastrous future for myself:
my hair greying or gone, my whiskers just coming in full (for I would
spare my friends and family the indignity of having to recognize me and ask how
it was going by cultivating a thick black beard), I would wander the
streets of Mediterranean seaport towns, guitar by my side, while orphans and
cripples gathered and threw lira and drachma and crusts of bread at my
Yet even my own premonitions of doom and despair were pleasant
compared with the fate my girlfriend was suggesting. I clearly had to
make some decisions. Overeducated and underqualified for most positions, I
had boxed myself into a corner, professionally, and I knew that one of the
reasons for this trip to the Caribbean was to talk some sense into me,
to show me clearly that--for better or worse--this vacation was something
that I would never be able to afford on my own if I were to stay in music;
that I'd have a hard enough time looking after myself, much less a family,
should I ever marry and should my wife not wish to play tambourine in
the Paris metro.
There would be talk about the wisdom of going back to school
and getting another degree, about the possibility of setting up interviews
with friends of the family who were in publishing or in public relations,
along with the old, comforting lies about music being something you never
really lose, never really leave, that you could always enjoy it in the
evenings or on weekends, keep it in a box behind the barn and take it out and wax
it now and then.
"For God sakes, look at Ted Hood!" my sister had offered once,
in the midst of a similar conversation.
"He used to be a musician!" she'd said, making everything clear.
Unfortunately, if it got to that again, I had no new plan or
counterproposal, nothing up my sleeve, and I knew that, in case of a
war, I was already beaten. It was going to be a very long week.
That night there was a buffet outside by the poolhouse, with
Japanese lanterns hung around the sides of the pool and long tables
spread out by the steps. Thin black waiters in white uniforms and tall chef's
hats stood proudly over enormous trays of broiled lobster, grilled shrimp,
fried cuttlefish, salmon mousse, large tureens of saffron rice cooked with peas and ham, plates of cold asparagus and bowls of quickly-wilting lettuce.
A little girl in a pink fairy dress jumped up and down by the dessert
cart, pointing at everything in sight; and the guests, most of whom looked
like prosperous golfers, retired executives, or your better class of mafia
don, all accompanied by their second or third wives--very blonde and very
tan--happily sat in groups of four or six, drinking cocktails, downing
shrimp and trading Krueger rands. The balding man from earlier in the
day was now in a white sport coat, blue chemise lacoste and was negotiating
with the Captain for a particularly well-done piece of roast beef from
the sideboard. There was a sound of laughter and of clinking drinks in the breeze.
My mother, sister and I sat at a small table close to the pool,
a short distance away from the crowd and the groaning buffet tables. The
Japanese lantern nearest us continued to blow out throughout the
evening, and an ever-attentive waiter continued to re-light it, always looking
over and smiling at us as he did so.
"Island breezes," he winked, by way of explanation, the first
time. And then, because it sounded good, he repeated it at each relighting.
There was a sound of conga drums, and in the midst of the trays
and tables, a limbo bar was erected, and three young, brightly clad West
Indians--all with floppy straw hats on their heads, oversize shirts in
a patchwork of reds, greens and golds, white pants, and bare feet--began
pounding out an exotic, if unsteady beat on the drums. The Japanese
lanterns were gradually shifted, carried over, surrounding them and
making it look like they were in a ring of flames, as if they were caught in
an age-old ritual that had nothing to do with tourists or money or
resorts, but were appeasing a local god who clearly loved fire and was not
overly concerned about music, one of those deities who can take it or leave
The middle player, at the proscribed moment, peeled off his
shirt and, moving out from behind the conga drum, picked up a pair of
shakers, rattled them good-naturedly, and, bit by bit, edged back onto his
heels, his skinny body arched into limbo position. My mother, delighted by
pageant and ceremony, began clapping along to the rhythm (her time, I noticed, no worse than the drummers'), and my sister wrinkled her nose at me
conspiratorially. At least, I thought, at least this will forestall any
conversation or discussion about the ever-lowering limbo bar of my
possibilities, my career.
In the midst of the lanterns, the dancer was arching back to
ever-more improbable depths, now drinking a beer while slinking under a
height scarcely taller than the beer bottle, now holding a lighted
torch between his teeth as he just squeaked under the pole, pretending
failure, a slip, almost a fall, then a graceful turn and shiver of the hips and,
Voila!, home free, while the drums continued.
The obligatory chant of "Limbo, limbo like me" was taken up,
only to be abandoned and started up again a few minutes later, and various
drunk or lighthearted guests began slipping out of their shoes and jackets to
try their luck beneath the now chest-high pole, making jokes about each
other's bellies, sashaying and shimmying and wriggling their butts for the
supposed benefit of their wives and girlfriends, most of whom stood back,
holding the men's sportcoats, quietly comparing the bodies of the lean black
drummers to the more generous yield of their hammy, red-faced
protectors, trying not to think too much about it.
Meantime, the dancer, a thorough professional, had spotted the
little girl in pink, and, taking her by the hand and leading her under (the
pole resting a good six inches above her tiny golden head), proclaimed her
that night's Limbo Queen amidst shouts of approval and applause.
And then the rhythm skittered to a halt, the drummers wandered
over to have words with the Captain, trays of shrimp and rice were carted
off, the party lanterns flickered out, and the crowd melted off to their
rooms or to the bar, leaving the pool area with the torn and tawdry look of
an abandoned fairground, bits of streamers and colored paper and lobster
claws scattered about, a pair of shakers left lying on the diving board.
"Wonderful," my mother said, eyes shining as she closed her
handbag and started to rise. "Wasn't the music wonderful?"
After walking my mother and sister to their room at the
Clubhouse, I headed over to the Bachelors' Quarters, a small, recently erected block of cubicles near the staff housing, where single guests who are content to
holiday without room service or much of a view can stay at a reduced
rate. There was also an inference of raciness and madcap frivolity implied in
the name and, indeed, when I'd first checked in, the receptionist had given
me the room key with a wink and a knowing smile, implying that I was
moving into a bona fide house of sin.
Sadly, the Bachelors' Quarters was notable only for its
antiseptic seediness, as if it were constantly disinfected and hosed
down without ever being properly swept or cleaned, and the only other
resident I ever saw was a small, sad-eyed man who carried several rolled up copies of the Wall Street Journal and a pint of milk to his room, just down the
hall from me, closing the door slowly with a heart-rending sigh. At the
time, however, I wasn't much concerned with him, but with sorting out and
looking at my own future.
That night, like many other nights, I drew a blank. It wasn't
even a matter of coming up with bad ideas; there were no ideas at all. I gave
up, took my clothes off and slipped into bed. The sheets smelled fresh and
When I awoke, it was still dark, and in the quiet I could hear
drums coming in through the window, floating in as if on a breeze, though the
air was thick and still. At first, just coming out of sleep, I thought I
was still hearing the drums from the limbo party, but as I listened, and as
I woke, I heard the difference. There was nothing frantic or showy about
these drums, the beat was darker, quieter, but somehow more insistent,
like a light but constant tapping on the windowpane.
Without thinking, I rose, put on my jeans and a t-shirt, and
headed off in the direction of the drums, down the beach. In no sense was I
sleepwalking; I was awake and knew precisely where I was going, though,
in a larger sense, looking back, I seem to have had no choice in the
matter. The drums called, and I answered.
There were no lights and not much of a moon, but I could just
make my way, stumbling (as I often do in broad daylight), stubbing my toes
on bits of coral and driftwood, slowly acclimating myself to the night. A
cloud passed overhead, and, in passing, released half a sky full of
stars, and now I could make out vague outlines and shapes: a rowboat beached on the rocks, a deck chair or part of a deck chair collapsed and abandoned in the sand, a starfish, another starfish. The drums continued with the same beat and the same insistence, though they never seemed to get any
louder, and though I somehow knew that I was heading in the right direction,
going the right way, the drums seemed to come from everywhere at once,
filling the air.
Far down the beach, maybe a mile or so, I could make out the
light of a small fire, a bonfire, maybe, and that's where I assumed the drums
were coming from. And so I walked. I knew that I was on unfamiliar
ground, that I was moving as directly as possible toward a rhythm that seemed
to fill my head, that seemed already a part of my blood, that not only
knew my name and where I lived, but what I did there, inside that name, within
that body. There was never a sense of fear or of danger, just a light chill
from the night air and a vague longing that I'd thought to wear sneakers so
that each step needn't be a new adventure, a full exploration of seaweed and
coral and driftwood and sandcrabs and the remains of their dinner, bits
of dead fish and sea creatures.
Up ahead, I could see the fire more clearly and make out shapes
and shadows. Ten or eleven men were gathered around the fire, crouched
around a variety of drums and empty oil cans, which they beat with small sticks
or with the flat of their hands. As I approached, I saw that I'd
miscounted, that there were probably fifteen or sixteen men, but some were huddled close, partnered around the same drum, their hands moving together so smoothly, in such unison, that two together seemed like one unit, one
In contrast to the limbo dancers and drummers earlier, there
was no sense of show or ceremony, and apart from the fact that it was the
middle of the night, and that I'd somehow been summoned from my sleep,
there was nothing exotic about the scene before me. These were
professionals at work, doing their job--whatever that was--and it
seemed as odd and impolite and inappropriate to stand there and stare at them as it would be to stand and stare at workmen out digging a ditch or fitting
And yet I stood and I stared, just back from the circle, as the
drums continued the same, constant beat, no louder, no softer, no
faster, just a deep throb that seemed far away and close at the same time, that seemed to encompass an entire world of notes and melodies and messages within a simple pulse.
It's hard from this distance not to glamorize it, put a voodoo
spin on the scene, shadows dancing in the fire, dark drums of passion
laughing in the night with the urgency of a heartbeat or the soft and steady
sound of sleep coming at last, approaching from way down the street, like a
taxi. But the scene was as simple and unchanging as the beat. None of the men acknowledged my presence, no one seemed to notice I was there, but no
one turned me away or, by sign or gesture, asked me to go. And, looking
back on the scene now, I see myself as as much a part of the picture as the
drummers, a lone figure just outside the circle, at the edge of the
firelight, barefoot, wide-eyed, asleep and awake, watching, waiting.
And then after a time the drums stopped, and the men slowly got
up and stretched, brushed off the tops of the drums, rubbed their hands
together, and, without a word, kicked sand into the fire, leaving
little more than a dull glow, picked up their drums and melted back into the
darkness. One man, one that I hadn't noticed before, stayed behind,
crouched by the fire, as though making sure it was put out properly. He
glanced over at me for a second and then returned to watching the
but the glance was enough. I felt that I could approach now, and I did.
"Why have you stopped?" I asked.
"Because it's finished," he said slowly, still staring at the last
light of the fire. "Because we've done our job," he said simply,
looking me in the eye for the first time and nodding to himself. And then he rose, threw a handful of sand onto the fire and walked off into the woods. The sun was edging up over the ocean, the sky just starting to lighten, and
I sat up with the dawn, not thinking, just staring into the water. When I
walked back, the chill was gone, and the sand was almost warm against my feet.