It Isn’t The Caboose That Kills You

Caboose chessie

Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.

Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.

My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.

Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.

The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.

One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.

If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.

My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.

And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.

Even Hep Cats Get The Blues

Roland Kirk bright moments

My parents met at a dance for foreign students in Boston. (He was Scottish; she was Dutch.) My mother, who listened almost exclusively to classical music and played the cello, would later confess that, after watching my father perform his rousing Fats Waller impression she wondered if he might be mad. (Only later would she realize the complete accuracy of this hypothesis.)

My father’s love for jazz can be traced back to his childhood in Glasgow where he saved ha’pennies in order to afford 78rpm recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other American greats. The music seemed wildly exotic and wonderful to him; moving to the States post-war increased his devotion.

As a child I was immersed in the exquisite creations of Satchmo, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and others long before The British Invasion. (Every so often my father would regale us with his impression of Coleman Hawkins playing “Body & Soul”. This hilarious homage was delivered using only his lips and included elaborate mugging.)

High school and college were devoted to rock; Hendrix had propelled it to the stars. But by the time I got to graduate school Hendrix was dead and rock was very much in decline. I returned to jazz and found that, while rock does one thing very well, jazz is a complete art form that encompasses all elements of the human spirit. Jazz is not so much a musical style as it is a world.

One of my absolute favorite players was a human three-ring circus named Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk was blind and famous for playing as many as three saxophones simultaneously. But this only scratches the surface. He would play the flute and talk at the same time, launch into “raps” that ranged from bawdy to political. Kirk was not an easy man, but the very definition of a creative genius who could hold his own with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker – anyone!

I saw Kirk perform three times, once at Carnegie Hall, once in a horrid meeting room in Chicago, and once in a tiny Dayton jazz club called Gilly’s. I went there alone and got a seat all the way up front. To my amazement, Kirk came into the room from the back and started working the crowd. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit covered with hooks and zippers and looked like a human Christmas tree except that instead of ornaments there were saxophones, flutes, whistles, miscellaneous percussion instruments, etc.

He moved with confidence a sighted person wouldn’t have had, Kirk knew every stick of furniture in that room, and he sensed every person. At last he arrived at the front of the room, by the stage, next to my table.

“How you doin’ man?” He faced me and seemed to know I was alone.
“Great,” I answered too eagerly, “I’m really happy about being here.”
“I ain’t.”
“What do you mean?” This confession did not conform to my expectation of the evening. I had been counting the days; some idiot part of me believed that Kirk had also been looking forward to it.
“I ain’t feeling it, man. It’s Sunday night, I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”
“Why would you be doing that when you could be here turning these folks on to your fabulous music?”
“Because, man, just because. I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”

It wasn’t the idea of a blind man watching TV. It wasn’t the idea of the baddest, hippest jazz musician on the scene watching the squarest, whitest, most apple pie show on TV. It was the idea that even the most incendiary genius could be vulnerable and flat like the rest of us.

He did two sets; being a professional, they were absolutely amazing. But even when he dug so deeply into “If I Loved You” that I felt sure the notes had been stored in the basement next to the cases of beer, it was impossible not to picture Mary in Lou’s office, crying – and Rahsaan saying, “Love is all around, no need to fake it.”