Using a drug-dusted straw to snort the last line of an 8-ball of coke, drinking the last drop of vodka from the bottle, I tossed both in the trash. When my second marriage ended, I was heartbroken and half crazy. The months following, I excessively self-medicated, which rarely works well for anyone. Yet, for me it almost did.
It’s said you must hit rock bottom to find the road to recovery, and that was true for me. I had to pass through one of two doors. Through one, I was dying in a room due to my current lifestyle. Let’s call that Door Number One. Through the other, I was returning to what I loved and always wanted to do. We’ll call that Door Number Two. Standing shakily, I walked unsteadily through Door Number Two. And there was music.
Years before my second marriage to a painter/photographer ended, I’d stopped writing and playing music. The tiny music instruction business I ran on the Upper East Side of NYC had blossomed into an impressive cottage industry; with a schedule so overbooked I commissioned some other teachers to bear the load. I had no time to rehearse, write, or book gigs (none of which provided as good a return on my time as teaching). Successful people say time is money. Ironically, they neglect to mention making that money will leave little time for anything else.
After passing through that door, I grabbed a neck brace with a blues harmonica in place and slipped it on, then removed my Martin guitar from its case to sit atop my lap. It wasn’t tuned, but with a few twists and turns of the tuning pegs, it was in standard tuning. Experimenting with chords and riffs a progression caught my ear. Those sounds spoke to me, unlocking buried feelings. Hoarsely, I started singing to what I was playing, and this poured straight from my soul:
We talk about dead painters, discuss tomorrow’s news
It’s another night ending, and daylight’s shining through
So, I study your expression, sometimes your eyes won’t let me in
While you tell me another story about Picasso’s evil twin
Sometimes I think you’re Medusa, deadly snakes move all around your head
But you brush away the danger, through 1001 deaths you’ve lived
Maybe you’re Amelia Earhart, flying off into the night
With intuition as your co-pilot, you’re an artist borne in flight
Let me study your expression, ‘cause your eyes won’t let me in
And tell me more about the life of Picasso’s evil twin.
Who knows if you’ll paint like him, you understand the attitude
I hear you speaking clearly, and that’s not what most people do
So, put it in your pipe and smoke it, go home and read it in your tarot cards
Just when I thought kindred spirits, only slept buried in my backyard
It’s time for a philosophy lesson, tonight when you appear again
Please tell me another story and bring Picasso’s evil twin
Tell me; tell me one more story before the moon goes in
And sign all your paintings
With lots of love,
From Picasso’s evil twin
(Take a listen: https://youtu.be/8j6p1Jl_aqM)
I titled the tune saving me that night, “Picasso’s Evil Twin.” A dam had burst and I was reborn to perform and create anew. For weeks, song after song spilled from lips and fingertips like some melodic waterfall. I’d book an East Village sound studio to record the instrumental and vocal sections, and after a few sessions, the owner of that home studio announced he was off with his band to tour Japan, suggesting I could sublet the place while he was gone to cover his rent while away, and I could continue to record whenever I felt inspired.
Spring had ended, and the sticky summer of 1990 had begun. Farming out my remaining students to those commissioned, I sublet my uptown apartment and moved downtown to Greenwich Village, taking up residence in the studio, across the street from the NYC Chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. Most importantly, I had maintained sobriety.
I renewed former exercise habits—jogging and calisthenics at daybreak— followed by a workout with free weights discovered in the studio. I maintained a strict diet. Meals consisted of grilled chicken or canned tuna (without mayonnaise), greens topped with unsweetened yogurt, and four Saltine crackers. I was losing the weight I’d gained as a lethargic addict and regaining muscle tone I was once proud of. Healthier than in years; I felt great. Like a rock star—no—a rock god!
If you’re a rock god you’d best dress like one. No better places to adopt new fashions or accessorize than Greenwich Village boutiques. My body looked as it had in the 1970s. If you’ve got it—flaunt it. And flaunt it I did: skintight clothes exposing as much muscle and skin as the law allowed then accessorized with biker jewelry and other punked-out accouterments. I was sexy again, damn it, and I planned to bed every woman who could walk and a few who couldn’t. Why be picky when you can be well sated?
My blue jeans were stonewashed and snug, particularly the crotch. I opted to go commando-style with my bits and pieces bulging through the faded fabric, daring the dolls to grab them. Why? Because I was now too sexy for my pants. Sleeves and collars were cut to maximize the visibility of my sculpted biceps, abs, and pecs. Why? Because I was now too sexy for my shirts. Skull rings adorned my fingers, and chrome-plated chains around my wrists and dangled from my belt. Why? Because I was now too sexy for my own damn good, I guess.
With new surroundings, new lifestyle, new body, new clothes, comes new ideas. I was immersing myself in music, but I wasn’t able to write enough to fill the recording time now afforded. Since I lived in a center of the music universe and had a pretty cool sonic salon for the upcoming months, I’d scout new talent to produce and record. For female artists I opened the doors and permitted them—as long as I was at the board—to lay down tracks for free, even offering to shop the product to my record company contacts. What could go wrong with that?
After morning exercise, recording afternoon to evening, I’d scarf down salads and crackers then later set out prowling like a vampire at night. I’d informed the bouncers at club doors I was a label scout, so most would allow me in without a cover charge. It’s good publicity for clubs to garner a reputation as a hotspot for new talent to be discovered; a win-win for all as well as a way to save my money.
Many of the places I trolled are defunct or departed now: CBGB & OMFUG, Bottom Line, Tramps, Limelight, Max’s, Mudd Club, Tunnel, Roxy, Coney Island High, Cat Club, Wetlands, Knitting Factory, Ritz, and Bitter End. Prey was easy and the hunt an adventure. After visiting my studio for the first session, we’d hang out and party after a second visit (they’d drink whatever—I drank so much club soda I probably have CO2 bubbles in my bloodstream), we’d go to dinner, return to try new ideas, and end up in the sack. Ba-Da-Bing-Ba-Da-Boom!
Once, you’d probably call me a nice guy. One who places women’s wants and needs above his. The gentleman women lament is no longer around; who treats them like a queen more precious than the world. But my resurrection—new lifestyle, body, clothes, and accessories—came bundled with a new attitude: No More Mr. Nice Guy!
I never believed tales of how women loved bad boys, but I learned fast. Most women I met then were struggling artists clawing to the top and had their agendas. Many were ruthless; using others as stepping stones. Lots were just downright self-centered, nasty, or evil little toadstools; the ones I found most satisfying to grind my ax of misogynistic revenge upon. After my second wife left, any relationships I fell into ended badly. Why play nice when you can play any way you want and get away with it?
One night at CBGB, after squashing a few cockroaches crawling on the bar, I prepared to leave when a band with a cheesy name that sounded like “fromage” hit the stage. The guys in the band sucked, but the slutty-looking singer had something. Remaining through their sloppy set I introduced myself, complimenting their performance, handing out my business card, and they asked me to join them for a drink. I suggested they set up an appointment to come record some songs for free. If we worked well together, we’d strike a deal. If not—part ways—they keep the demo. During our tête-à-tête, I intentionally paid little attention to their singer; Ashley.
Next day, after exercising, the phone rang. Ashley. After I’d left the group had a meeting, and she wanted to come by to talk. I told her to come around eight. Right on the dot, the bell rang. There, stood Ashley in a short-short blood-red crushed velvet dress matching her heavily painted lips and providing a cleavage-baring plunging neckline, stiletto heels with ripped black fishnets. With her was the un-tuned guitarist. They had an uncorked bottle of wine to drink while I sipped seltzer.
They were married. José from Spain, working as a jewelry store engraver, she from a town in New Jersey, and spoke of how the voice was her “instrument” that she took great care of, that music’s her “life,” and she’d “do anything to make it in the business”. At her insistence, he’d learned guitar that year, filling in for her previous one. We listened to their horrible cassette tape demo, told them I’d do better then we scheduled a date. During the evening, hubby excused himself to go outdoors for a smoke. Though an ex-smoker, I said he could smoke inside, Ashley explained he wasn’t allowed to because it’d damage her “instrument.” Believe I rolled my eyes.
The band line-up: husband on un-tuned guitar, a New Zealand drummer, bassist from God knows where who said nothing and Ashley on the mic. I helped them set up and they ran through a song they wanted to record so I could set levels. Percussive Kiwi and Silent Bass weren’t that bad when it was just them and Ashley. But José playing along, it all fell apart. Even though I’d tuned his guitar, he strummed with such a heavy hand it detuned immediately. Using my previous teaching experience, I tried to help out, but that only made him nervous, and he’d take cigarette breaks to calm down. During these breaks, Ashley apologized profusely for her husband’s lack of professionalism as the other band members sat around looking as bored as broccoli. Finally, a suggestion was floated: we’d get the bass/drum tracks down then let José take the tracks to practice with, and could return tomorrow to dub in what we couldn’t get today. Everyone agreed, and the rhythm section was recorded.
Let me tell you a bit about José. He was a nice enough fellow, but reminded me of a Chihuahua; small, wiry, nervous, fidgety. He had a Castilian lisp, chain-smoked, and though he suffered from stomach ulcers, drank his scotch straight, and dabbled with heroin (something Ashley shared with me during pillow talk), though still in the smoking and snorting stages. He was bisexual (another tidbit Ashley shared in post-coital chats). When José’s bisexuality came out of the closet he’s disowned and exiled by his family. I felt bad for him, but not so bad that I wouldn’t jump his wife’s bones at my earliest convenience. Oh, and as a musician he sucked.
The band had heard me playing the parts I tried to teach José, and while he was outside smoking, asked me to track them instead. When they returned for the next session, I had recorded it but said not a word. Neither did José. Since enough of the instrumentation was complete to work on the vocal tracks, I suggested that all but Ashley take off, so she could do her thing in a less pressured setting. The rhythm section, a.k.a. Kiwi and Silent Bass, couldn’t wait to leave. José protested, but Ashley wouldn’t hear of it, so he packed up his guitar, and with tail between legs sulked out the door.
Ashley always brought wine to my place to have a few glasses between takes and overdubs. We worked well and fast together that first night, in both the vocal booth, then in my loft bed afterward. First times may not always be the best, but they certainly are lots of fun. José called several times, but it went to voicemail because we were “recording.” After four in the morning, that’s what Ashley told him when she returned home. Don’t know what else she said, but it was the dawn of a series of recording dates that ended with us naked most nights.
As lovers do, we traded notes. I don’t recall telling Ashley how I cowardly weaseled out of my first marriage by leaving letters exchanged with my future second wife in the open to be discovered. Whoops! Maybe I did share that tidbit during post-coital conversations because she pulled the same stunt on her husband with our secretly scribbled screeds. He kicked her out of the apartment leased in his name and she had nowhere to go. She called crying on a payphone from some West Village street, asking what she’s going to do. Like a fool, I invited, “Come to my place.” She did.
At first, it was okay. The home studio owner returned from Japan, and I had moved back to the Upper East Side. To continue with my music and producing others for a fee, I built my own home facility. José filed for divorce, and as Ashley didn’t have a job or any source of income, I supported us. My future third ex-wife wanted to chip in with expenses and had an idea: she’d work for me giving voice lessons at my teaching business, coaching or singing backup for my production clients. I agreed to the arrangement.
Ashley wrote new tunes to record, so more and more of my time was consumed by co-writing, producing, engineering, mixing, and playing the instruments on her tracks, and less time on mine. She was my shadow, and when I’d compose, she’d begin to sing her latest lyrics over what I was working and hijack the songs. Worst of all, she’d direct how I’d play; faster, slower, softer, or louder. Telling me to repeat or remove sections, among slews of other annoying instructions.
The final straw that broke the camel’s creative back began, “What if you used a different chord there?”
“What chord would you like?”
“Just a different one.”
“You want any chord other than what I’m playing?’
“No, I want the right one!”
“Then tell me the right chord you want to replace the wrong chord!”
“I don’t any chord names!!”
“I know the names of the chords, and there are none named ‘right’ or ‘wrong’!!”
“You know what I mean!!!”
“If I did, we wouldn’t be arguing!!!”
“I know what you’re really thinking!!!!”
“If you knew what I was thinking, you’d know it’s I hate hearing you know what I’m ‘really’ thinking!!!!” using air quotes as I shouted ‘really’.
“Yes, I do. You think you know about music because you studied it and that I know nothing about it because I didn’t, but there’s more to music than that!!!!!” she screamed.
“Share what about music I don’t know but you do!!!!!” my sarcastic words drip with acid.
“I don’t know—you tell me!!!!!!”
“If you don’t like my chords, why don’t you find chords you want to use?!?!?!?”
“I DON’T KNOW HOW TO PLAY ANY DAMN CHORDS!!!!!!!!”
“LEARN—MAYBE YOU’LL START COMPOSING YOUR OWN MUSIC AND STOP STEALING MINE. THEN I CAN GET BACK TO WRITING WHAT I WANT, WHEN I WANT, WITH CHORDS, WORDS, MELODIES, AND IDEAS I WANT INSTEAD OF ALWAYS DOING IT FOR YOU!!!!!!!!”
The discussion had escalated into an argument at a rate that neither cared to control. Ashley left the room with a shriek, and I sat there in silence, returned my guitar to its case, and never again played or wrote another new piece of music.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. Once Ashley was in, there was no getting her out. Bedbugs had nothing on this woman when it came to being a pest. Our fights became louder and meaner. Contests of contention, arguments the only occasions we said more than empty words to each other, and each punctuated by her leaving for days.
We’d break up one day—be back together the next. On one of her returns, while making-up, the subject of marriage was broached. Who brought it up remains forgotten. The nuptial process moved quickly. For the previous year, we’d mostly argued and fought. It was a disastrous, unhealthy, toxic relationship. By the end, we’d become simply terrible to one another, and it was absolutely hopeless.
On February 14, 1994—Valentine’s Day—we got the license at City Hall. We were marrying for all the wrong reasons. I do remember that between getting the license and our vows, I tried to call it off, but she wouldn’t hear of it. This ignited more confrontations. Defeated and married by a county clerk, I tied the knot on February 24, 1994. On May 27, 1999, a judgment of divorce issued by the same county clerk’s office thankfully ended Ashley’s second and my third marriage. Beware the door you choose open.