Saturday, February 7, 2015

Excerpt from "Gigs," a novel about musicians

Here is an excerpt from my novel, "Gigs," which I have just made available for Kindle download for $2.99. It is an under-the-hood look at the life of the gigging musician and also the active alcoholic and addict. This is an excerpt from a chapter called "Jazz and Heroin," in which our protagonist plays a jazz gig for a Boston Symphony Orchestra wine and cheese gathering, and does heroin for his first time on the set break.

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Jazz and Heroin (Excerpt)
The gig was at The Lindmore Gallery of Fine Art on Beacon Street downtown. There was valet parking, and I was concerned that the car smelled like pot, but Chuckie wasn’t. “Fuck ‘em,” was his answer to my having raised the issue. We took our gear out of the car, he handed his keys over to the valet and we went inside.
            The rest of the band was already set up and the downbeat was still twenty minutes away, so we got a little something to eat. Chuckie got a glass of wine and I found the bar for a few ounces of bourbon. Wine had always seemed to me to be an inefficient alcohol delivery system and I really couldn’t tell one from another. They had Maker’s Mark, so I was happy with that, and I had gotten a refill by the time we had to start playing.
            We kicked it off pretty safely with Days of Wine and Roses, and it began to dawn on me what a surreal job this was. All of these tremendous classical musicians on hand, and they hired a jazz band for their party? Weird. I would have thought a string quartet playing Vivaldi might be more in order, but whatever. I was making $250 on a Monday evening for a two-hour gig, so it was time to shut up and take the money.
            The first set was a little hairy; easy standards like Night and Day, Satin Doll, All of Me, Perdido, that whole bag, and it just wasn’t happening. No applause, and none was deserved. The band was uptight about clamming in front of these virtuosi, so nobody was really going for it. It didn’t seem like a bass and drums kind of audience, and they were too used to spectacular piano players for Roy to be the man. At the set break, it was looking like if anyone was going to get this audience up and running it was me.
            We had a swanky dressing room stocked with beer and food, but in spite of the amenities and the good money, we were all feeling a little down. The band needed a plan, and we huddled around a table in the dressing room. Chuckie was first to speak.
            “Look, this cheese jazz isn’t going to cut it. These are motherfuckers in this audience. These are cats as heavy as cats get. Maybe they can’t swing, but more accurately, they have chosen not to. They can hear through all that shit we’ve been playing. We need to take it outside. Let’s do some junk.”
Chuckie started chopping a white powder on the marble coffee table with his credit card. He laid out four equal lines, fat little caterpillars, about an inch long each, and glistening white. He took the straw and huffed down his line.
            I had never done heroin before. My drug experience was more of the constant marijuana, occasional cocaine bender variety. Some hardcore alcohol benders maybe but nothing resembling nod sessions on smack. I had seen plenty of heroin, especially when I was working out with the big hair rock band in college. They used to smoke black tar off tin foil after rehearsal and drone out. I thought that was kind of gross, but this seemed different and I had already made up my mind that I was going to do some.
            Chuckie was talking about going deeper into a sixties sound next set, Blue Note, and Verve from that era. Zeke walked over to the table to do his line, and I remembered him passing on Chuckie’s cocaine after the Willy’s jam, even saying that cocaine was “silly,” and I remember thinking it odd that he was doing heroin, but now having done heroin more than a few times since, I know what he meant about cocaine being silly.
            I was getting nervous, as much about the material Chuckie was proposing as I was about the skag that was being carved out on the table. I could handle the modal jazz bag all right, but this was the BSO we were playing for. I was intimidated, and the idea of playing Coltrane in front of them all smacked out for my first time didn’t help.
            On a good night, I was good, maybe even inspired in the modal jazz idiom it seemed we were preparing to execute. I had transcribed mountains of Coltrane solos, and considered myself a scholar of Wayne Shorter’s early work. In a period of obsession between the ages of twenty and twenty-one, I had transcribed virtually all of Shorter’s recorded works in the Miles Davis Quintet. But I respected the music so much that I was hesitant to play it in front of members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra while on heroin. It just seemed a little disrespectful.
            At that point I had only played with Roy on one previous occasion, the jam the night before, which was great but brief, and I hadn’t really been able to assess his pure jazz playing thoroughly. Word from Chuckie was that Roy could really get it done any night, in any context, and Chuckie was sparse with his compliments. Of course Chuckie’s playing was all there, drunk, stoned, tripping, smacked out, probably the boy could play if he was dead. Probably just a matter of a little waiting around to find out, but I had never heard of a circumstance in which Chuckie couldn’t play, in spite of the many fantastic obstacles he would set out for himself on virtually every gig.
            Tonight, the band was being called Chuckie’s Choice, a reference to his real or imagined local jazz nobility, and the presumption that he had his choice of the best players in Boston. Zeke was the pick of the litter on drums, and here, hunched over a sparkling line of heroin was the legendary percussionist. When he passed on the line of coke after the jam session, I figured him to be straight, but he seemed eager about the China white laid out on the table. Just as he was about to get his line in, he brought up something that had been bugging him.
            “You know, I’m not wild about the name of this band,” he said. “Chuckie’s Choice. It’s kind of cheesy to name the band after yourself, don’t you think? And besides, who have you ever played with?”
            Zeke felt that he was as good a musician as Chuckie, and he had already played with Sonny Stitt and Ahmad Jamal. Chuckie had never played with anyone of national or global stature as a steady sideman. He did some union jobs with celebrity vocalists, but he had never been a steady with a major jazz artist. Zeke made these kinds of observations frequently and Chuckie didn’t mind. As long as Zeke was going to play his ass off, a little tension on the bandstand never hurt a jazz gig. The money, dope, the personalities, none of it mattered to Chuckie. It was always all about the music.
            Zeke emitted a low whistle. “China white. Damn. Where’s my works? This shit is too sweet to snort.”
            “Take it or leave it, junkie.” Chuckie was glad to elevate the tension between he and Zeke this close to hitting the stage. In spite of the objection he had just registered, Zeke plugged a nostril and snorted as the straw traveled half way down the shining line. He changed hands, plugged the other nostril, hovered again and pulled.
            Roy passed on the smack, as he had done on the coke the previous evening. He didn’t drink either, and I imagined that he didn’t smoke weed. Like Chuckie had said the night before, “Sweet Roy is one clean brother.”
            Chuckie split Roy’s line in two, and shared it with Zeke. It was my turn, and I trusted my bandleader’s judgment on the topic of dosage, especially seeing that he and Zeke had taken half again as much as I was about to. That trust was a mistake. I leaned over to take the line in two strong snorts.
            Zeke was no barometer to measure a first timer’s response, and Chuckie, the crown prince of increased tolerance, was hardly a sensitive gauge either. Zeke was so dark already that he needed double dosages to get to the starting line. But I, virgin to the horse’s power bellied up to the bar and sucked it in deep, half and half, it hit, it melted, and then about a minute later, there was sudden clarity on the subject of puking. I spotted a potted plant.
            I was concerned about making a mess in the dressing room of a snooty art gallery in downtown Boston and aimed the barf, tight, precise, and clean. One hundred percent in the potted plant. Chuckie was laughing himself out of a good nod. “The way a man pukes on smack speaks volumes about him. The man who throws up all over his environment, this is a man who does not live crisply, with dedication and focus. But you, Daniel, you are tight, you are so tight. You puke as tight as you play.”
            I cleaned myself up with a towel Chuckie tossed my way and felt the warmth flood my skin, each pore dancing in the sudden recovery. It was sex, it was death, it was beauty. It was heroin. I fell endlessly back into the chair and peered around half-lidded at my nodding comrades. Chuckie was the first to speak.
            “Let’s hit it with Coltrane’s Acknowledgment from A Love Supreme. We’re counting on you, Dan,” Chuckie said, pointing at me. He stood and walked away, and we all knew that was our cue to play. I was higher than I had ever been and I was scared shitless.
            The band took the stage and Zeke started with a quiet drum solo, which turned out to be a huge relief. I was shaking so bad my fingernails were clacking against my horn’s lacquer as I was fitting the strap. I was still going up. Up. Up and I didn’t know when it was going to stop. Then I felt an awesomely beautiful and powerful down come around and I remember telling myself, “Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep, you can’t fall asleep.” God I was high.
The band thought Zeke was just warming up at first, but then he wouldn’t stop, so the band backed off and let him do his thing. That gave me time to get my shit together and I think that’s why Zeke did what he did. I think he was looking out for me, giving me time, space to find my way. I don’t think he knew it was my first time using heroin, but he must have known I was green, and my impression even at the outset was that this was some really pure stuff, and oh shit was I high.
Zeke was taking a long time to build the solo, using the sides of drums, cymbal stands, his drum throne, even an hors d’oeuvre tray that was parked near his kit. It was an immensely difficult polyrhythmic composition that was legendary in the Boston avant-garde jazz circles. He had played it before in public at percussion clinics and at drum expos, but he had never played it at a gig. It was technically ferocious, yet somehow still soothing and gentle. The BSO’s principal timpanist was the first to stop and stand rapt, but a larger crowd gathered, and Zeke took it as a cue to unleash his beast.       
            He was soon mauling the little four-piece kit and at the height of the madness, I looked over and saw Chuckie reach for his bass. I addressed my horn and saw Roy’s eyes drifting downward toward the keys. Zeke laid into triple forte buzz roll, loud and perfect, like a waterfall had suddenly appeared in the room, and the band stepped in hard. I jumped in with the first choruses from Acknowledgement.
            I then launched into my own improvisations. I blew it strong and didn’t let up, the same attitude all the way through, no bring it up, take it down, peak out and close. I just kept it up, right up, up straight through, eight more choruses, all up, up, up. The variety was in the improvisations, not in the moods. I was playing from my head all right, which I didn’t like to do, but there’s heart in it too when you play like that. The heart in it isn’t about playing with feeling, that wasn’t it at all. It’s more an acknowledgment of the immense intellectual task that you are putting before yourself, the humanity of it, that’s where the heart is, the measure of harmonic understanding and personal expression that an improvising musician can present in the quickly passing moments of a human being’s consciousness.
            I wanted to comment on Zeke’s rage as expressed in the back end of his introductory percussion passage, and surprised the band by blowing over the turnaround one more time with high vigor. I began honking and bleating through yet another chorus, literally screaming into my horn, teeth in the reed, tilting on the mouthpiece for abominable squeaks and howls, but all pitched right on perfect if my ear wasn’t lying to me. There was such fire in it that I knew nobody could ever accuse me of gimmickry on that ninth chorus through. Zeke heard it and began the insane bashing again and pulled a Mingus half way through, yelling and grunting nonsense from behind his kit. Roy was croaking for his solo at this point and was no way going to let me take a tenth chorus. At the next turnaround Roy stepped in strong and muscled to the forefront, pounding the nine-foot Steinway. It was even louder than the violent whoops and shrieks emanating from my horn.
            Everybody from both rooms gathered around to observe the pandemonium, and by the time Roy had fully wrested center stage from me, the room was full. There was spontaneous and strong applause as I finally backed off the horn and looked up, genuinely surprised and pleased at what I had just played.
            Roy created marvelous swirling puzzles in the air, and solved them in the most unexpected ways. He signed off his last chorus with some swinging sixteenth notes in his left hand and loud, dense tone clusters in his right hand to close.
            The tune broke down to a bass solo, and Chuckie was all over it, not to be outdone by a country boy on heroin for the first time, a sober young black man, or a smacked-out pro on drums. He manhandled the instrument with his amazing stogie fingers, and gave testimony that there was a reason for all the hype about Chuck Gravely. The solo was gorgeous, wild, and varied. He too got crazy at the end, like Zeke had, like I had, like Roy had, standing with one foot in the crook and his body draped over the shoulder of the enormous box thumping and grooving and finding every note that was ever inside that big old bass.
            We blew through the head twice more to end and pounded the last chord for another minute and a half, Sun Ra style crescendos of dissonances heaped upon one another, roaring and whispering while the room exploded. Zeke kicked his drum set over into the audience and walked off stage, which freaked a lot of people out. It had been forty minutes of some very heavy playing on one John Coltrane sketch, we were junked out hard, and this gig was over.
            “Jazz and heroin,” Chuckie said to me as we returned to the dressing room amid the thundering ovation. “They go together like cookies and milk.”

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Antivaxxer Movement

As in all things, the best way to speak to antivaxxers is respectfully and in detail, taking time to listen to the concerns of each of the various schools of thought that reside under the antivaxxing umbrella and to address each of these specific concerns individually. The only way to have a substantive discussion and to perform that rarest of all miracles, changing someone’s mind, is to talk to antivaxxers, not at them, and to demonstrate as best we can why we are so committed to the notion that their objection to vaccination does not outweigh the benefits to society or to them personally when mass vaccination becomes the societal norm.

It is sometimes exasperating for people frustrated with antivaxxers’ intransigence on this issue to talk to them, precisely because so much is at stake, so the name-calling begins pretty quickly. The issue is too big and too important and we must come to better unity on this because disease prevention is one of the great achievements of science and medicine, and as a species we ought to leverage it to our greatest benefit. The science is too good, too consistent and too well supported by decades of real world testing to resort to a hostility that is going to add an even greater defensive posture to persons resistant to vaccinating their children.

Nobody wants harm to come to their children, and if it indeed exists at all, there is an infinitesimally small percentage of parents for whom society’s greater good does not figure at least somewhat into their thinking and their decision-making. These objections to vaccination then are born of love, not malice, and that is the spirit in which our discussion should be held. The antivaxxer community wants a healthy life for their children as much as that vast majority of people who are vaccinating their children do. They are concerned about the rise in autism and other early onset childhood diseases, and their ascription by at least one published study and by religious and thought leaders within other disciplines to vaccination as a source of these conditions is what is driving some of their objections.

The first piece in attempting to dismantle this way of looking at vaccination is to inform people that the one study that linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism has been debunked and proven false on numerous technical fronts. It is utterly discredited and is not taken seriously by any major research hospital in the world, nor has another come to supplant it with similar results and better credibility. Its author has been linked to a conflict of interest scandal and early proponents of the study have since disavowed it.

The 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield was published in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, and suggested that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine may cause autism. By 2001, the study was being decimated by the medical community and has undergone more than 100 peer reviews since then with complete disavowal of the study’s findings. Nonetheless, the damage was done, and the residual effects of the Wakefield farce are still being felt today.  If an unawareness of the rebuke of that one junk article is still standing between someone and their decision to vaccinate, then it is incumbent on media outlets to be transparent about the Wakefield study’s bogus nature.

Another part of the problem stems from ethnocentricity. We have a lack of awareness of the dramatic benefit vaccination programs provide. Worldwide, when a disease becomes eradicated in a particular geographic area, the population very quickly grasps the true miracle of preventative medicine. Of all of the aid assistance the United States provides other nations of the world, there is none more gratefully received than vaccination efforts. But not only are we ethnocentric, we are also what you might call chronocentric, that is to say, unaware of any time apart from our own.

Society’s temporal distance from times when communicable diseases were scourges of the United States is at the heart of this new rise in unvaccinated children. The first of a series of waves of polio gripped the United States in the late 1800s. By the late 1940s to the early 1950s, when the epidemic was cresting, polio crippled an average of more than 35,000 people in the United States each year; parents across the United States would swoon with each summer cold their child would contract, with each allergic reaction to the spring bloom, dreading the worst, dreading polio. 

Death, paralysis, iron lungs and wheelchairs were the fates of many. The lucky ones got crutches. In a plea that boosted the research community in much the same way Kennedy’s words hurried space exploration, FDR begged the scientific community in 1944 to throw its vast imagination and deep body of knowledge toward the eradication of the scourge that put him in a wheelchair: “The dread disease that we battle at home, like the enemy we oppose abroad, shows no concern, no pity for the young. It strikes—with its most frequent and devastating force—against children. And that is why much of the future strength of America depends upon the success that we achieve in combating this disease.”

If you want to hear a song that captures with the typical stoicism of the greatest generation the experience of living with polio, listen to the lyrics of Save the Last Dance For Me in the knowledge that its author, Doc Pomus, had been felled by polio and wrote the lyrics watching his wife dance with others on their wedding night from his wheelchair. I work with a man whose father was a farmer and one of polio’s victims. He sometimes tells stories about his father, and occasionally a recollection of him swinging an uncooperative leg through a chicken coop door or some such detail will find its way into the story, and the wince that comes to this man’s face in those tellings is moving indeed.

In the United States, we are polio-free, and we are polio free thanks to Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, which was aggressively promoted beginning in the 1950s. Because of the social contract most Americans seemed to agree to, the United States quickly reached the “herd immunity” threshold. Herd immunity is a critical point past which a disease circulating through a society experiences a diminishment in instances of contraction because of so many potential hosts being immune. That diminishment spirals further down more quickly the larger the percentage of the population that is vaccinated until, if a sufficient percentage of the population is vaccinated, the pathogen cannot reproduce and effectively dies. Most young parents do not have a direct connection to polio, there having been an entire generation inserted into the history, and this social contract is not being adhered to at the level it once was.

The recent uptick in instances of measles is largely attributed to children whose parents have elected not to vaccinate them. For these parents, their error is plain, and hopefully they understand that now. In that there are certain percentages of the population who cannot be vaccinated including infants, pregnant women and some other categories, these populations are put at risk through no oversight or fault of their own. For this reason, I believe that refusing to immunize one’s child is an immoral act that is, perhaps saddest of all, born of good intentions that are driven by bad information. Roald Dahl’s letter imploring the world to vaccinate following the death of his daughter to measles is essential reading for anyone still resistant to vaccinating his or her children. Absent a preponderance of the population participating in vaccination, these diseases will come roaring back.

There is a percentage of antivaxxers who come to their decisions from a mistrust of government, both from a left perspective politically and a right perspective. Antivaxxers who come at it from a left perspective and additionally chastise Republican politicians for ignoring climate science are displaying egregious intellectual inconsistency. Those people need to reconcile those two issues to themselves because they are fruit from the same tree and their simultaneous endorsement reveals a lack of seriousness with regard to a serious issue. That disposition is truly a shame and there’s not much more to be said about that.

Government conspiracy theorists who believe mass vaccinations to be susceptible to governmental incursion for microchipping, for hotshot vaccines that make the population more docile and other such outside suggestions, I just have to say that whatever you imagine the government to be doing, they are doing worse, but they are not f***ing with your vaccines. They have bigger fish to fry and better pans to do it with. Antivaxxers from the right and left who additionally allege money collusion have to understand that big pharma and big medicine in general make a lot more treating disease than they do vaccinating against it.

Vaccines have staved off invasive and sometimes fatal illnesses in America for generations, and it is to our shame to allow our lack of continued vigilance in this area make this current era in United States history one that allows these devastating childhood diseases to come back with their former vigor. We have the technology; let’s use it. It is incumbent upon all of us to do our share and to reach and sustain herd immunity. Say it with me now, “Moo!”