2001 - Rising and Falling

2001 – Rising and Falling

I was immersed in the development of my musical skills and experiences. I did not know where I was going, but I felt like all my various efforts on many different musical fronts were adding up to something special. On Saturday January 13th, Modus Tollens played at our local watering hole KK’s on Ave. N. We brought 60-70 people and made $300. Not bad for a cold Saturday night in the neighborhood having some fun! 

There was a side project around this time called The Twilite Zone “Blues” Band[1]. We were a power trio comprised of myself on guitar and vocals, Marco Baranov on bass and Bob Henson on drums. We would play various blues and rock covers, rag on each other and generally have a good-bad time rehearsing and gigging around. For me it was fun because I had a chance to really wail on electric guitar as a lead player and to sing my heart out. This was important for me as I was no longer singing in Modus Tollens.

Modus Tollens was occupied with recording what would be our second and last official demo called The Basement Project[2]. As the title suggests we recorded it in The BASEment with Judd Diamond as the recording engineer. During one of these sessions someone brought some weed brownies. Despite my openness to drinking alcohol I had been staunchly opposed to taking any other mind-altering substances or to smoking anything for that matter. For some time, there were those amongst my group of friends who were eagerly encouraging me to try getting high. Eventually I felt my resistance to getting high was expending a lot of energy and I could sense that I was more uptight than I wanted to feel. Since various people had repeatedly assured me that it was no more dangerous and possibly safer than getting drunk, I was beginning to open to the idea. But I still genuinely didn’t like the idea of smoking. When the option of getting high through eating a brownie was offered to me, I could no longer say no. I had indeed become quite curious about it after all. 

So, one early evening, a group of us took these weed brownies together. We then took a walk in The Creek and into the adjoining golf course which required a brief traipse through a wooded area before opening to a wide green field. It was cold. I was feeling very funny in a good way. Later that evening I just sat in a chair feeling very comfortable feeling quite content with not doing anything besides being amused by my own thoughts and the vivid visions in my mind’s eye for nearly an hour (or several). Ahh, I think I understand why certain personality types really enjoy getting high.

In March there was a Battle of the Bands at Brooklyn College. Modus Tollens was supposed to perform but cancelled last minute. I decided to perform anyway as a solo act. I played three songs. Among them was a song called “Brooklyn”[3] which chronicled the life of a Brooklyn College student (namely me) and was probably a good fit for that audience who could likely relate to the lyrics:


Wake up to another pot of coffee

To a lesser version of me

To another cup of everyday

Get dressed when I’m done taking a shower

I’ve got less than an hour

Before I’ve got to be in class


Just another day, in Brooklyn

Woah woah, yeah yeah

Just another morning in Anywhere, U.S.A.

Just another day of headaches, another day of traffic

Another day of boredom and of dealing with our feelings

Just another calendar day in Brooklyn

Woah woah, yeah yeah


As it turned out, I came in 3rd place. I felt strongly about my performance and my place among the winners. Afterwards my pal and fellow Modus Tollens bandmate Jason Hills, who was present at the performance, came up to me with an eagerness that was unusual for him and approached me with the idea of recording a solo album. He said he would take on the responsibility of recording it and that we could do it together. Since high school he had been a strong supporter (and sometimes friendly competitor) of my songwriting and composition skills. While his offer did not come as a huge surprise it was indeed a welcome proposal that I had not really considered before. Yes, I wanted to continue with Modus Tollens, yet there was a clear heartfelt sense that I deeply yearned to establish my own place in the world as a stand-alone singer-songwriter. Being in a “democratic band” was bumming me out. Being tied to one another’s schedules, personal priorities, and whims was becoming a bit much for me. I felt there was much more that I could achieve as a songwriter and performer if I allowed myself to. 

Jason and I soon set about the prepping necessary to produce this first album. There were brunches at diners while we worked out details and enjoyed our ample American breakfasts.[4] There were sessions in The BASEment sorting through my many original songs to find the best choices for the album. I was eager to move forward and struggled with the patience required to get from start to finish with this whole process. Amidst the forward momentum of my first solo album and college life, Modus Tollens was still moving forward as well. As a sextet, we rocked the stage of The Elbow Room, located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, on the night of Saturday April 21st

May was musically rich and eventful. May 7th saw the premiere of one of my original pieces composed for small jazz ensemble, “Brooklyn Stomp”[5]. It was performed that day by a nine-piece jazz ensemble. The Brooklyn College Conservatory Jazz Ensemble concert took place the following week on May 14th. I performed as a member of both the Small Combo and the Big Band. Among several other gifted musicians present were two friends who I would also play music with outside of school in various formations: Aftab Motoyama and Dave Z. Some of the tunes in the set were Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo”, among others. It was in the preparation and performance of jazz tunes such as these that gave me the confidence to teach jazz guitar on some level in the years to follow. On May 21st, the Brooklyn College Guitar Ensemble performed a concert consisting exclusively of John Henry Sheridan compositions: four originals and one arrangement. I was deeply appreciative and my confidence as a musical force was growing. And thus ended my third year of college.

Modus Tollens played The Elbow Room again on Friday June 8th. A Friday slot meant that we were held in some regard by the club as band that could draw a crowd. Two nights later, on a lovely June evening I had my first bar gig as a solo act at King's Head Tavern in Manhattan’s East Village. I picked up my friend Larisa Vasilakis on the way. She dressed up nicely although clearly not really seeing it as a date which I half-hoped she would. She was the only person in the audience who came to see me that night. There were several people there, but mainly to drink. The audience humored me, but I suspect they may have been happier with the bar music playing during my breaktime than when I was performing. It really hit me that writing self-absorbed semi-depressing acoustic songs was not really the life for me. I sensed that people wanted to be uplifted or numbed out when they went out to drink, not brought further into a sad reflection of an already difficult life.

Modus Tollens enjoyed a fun local 4th of July show in the backyard of our drummer Dave Evans during his family’s holiday barbecue. We played to a very receptive crowd of friends and family. Modus Tollens continued to rehearse and make vague plans, but we were not really generating much momentum. We performed at The Elbow Room two more times that summer. In August, Jason Hills and I went to the top of our local shopping mall, Kings Plaza, to do a photo shoot for my upcoming debut solo album which we were almost finished with. 

As summer ended, my 4th year of college was off to a nice start. I would wake up with just enough time to get myself off and running to the bus often picking up a coffee and donuts or bagel for breakfast on the way. On the morning of Thursday, September 6th, I woke from a nightmare: I was in Manhattan when a massive bomb hit us, and I felt my skin being burnt off. I jolted awake in a state of great fear and anxiety, but as I recognized that I was fine and that it had just been a dream I was quickly filled with gratitude. 

A few days later, I woke to the alarm clock going off, a regular occurrence. This time it was strange. Through the morning fog of semi-consciousness, the newscasters on my distorted radio sounded unusually serious. I thought it was a bad joke like something out of Orson Well’s infamous War of the Worlds radio show. The newscasters kept repeating something to the effect that the World Trade Center had been hit and that America was under attack. I had never heard of anything like this happening before and it seemed far from the realm of possibility. After some time of this noisy radio chaos, I figured I should turn on the TV to see if there could be something going on.

I ran upstairs my heart now fluttering and turned on the TV in Mom’s living room. I watched replayed footage on a news channel of a plane flying into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. And then in a bewildering moment they showed a second plane fly into the second tower as it happened live! This was accompanied by a chorus of gasps and cries from the newscasters themselves co-mingled with fear and panic. Everyone in America (and as I would later learn - across the entire world) was having a serious WTF? moment!

Mom and I were bewildered. I decided to try and go to school that day as I still believed I had class. I walked to the bus stop on Flatbush Avenue. From there one could see the dreadful pillars of smoke rising from the direction of the World Trade Center area. They would keep doing so ceaselessly for the next few days. It was alarming! I had no idea what to think. I did not want to go to school, but I did not really want to go home either. After waiting thirty minutes with no bus in sight I went home. Later that day I took a walk in The Creek and it looked like there were odd flocks of birds flying southward. These “birds” were papers and other light debris caught in the wind and floating in our direction. I collected and saved some semi-burned papers with large financial figures printed on them as an eerie keepsake. 

In the days and weeks that followed I unfortunately witnessed many people reacting with anger and a spirit of retaliation. While understandable on one level, I implicitly sensed an error in this way of thinking yet had to live through it with self-composure. I knew in my heart that bloodshed begets bloodshed, and I didn’t want to see our country go into a deep cycle of trading violence for violence. It was a raw moment. Are we going to go to war? Who is the enemy? Who would want to attack the USA and New York City anyway? You mean there are people in the world who don’t love us and think we’re the best (like we do)!?? I was concerned about outbreaks of violence and racism towards Arabic and Muslim peoples. My good friend and our precious saxophone player Aftab Motoyama was half-Iranian and I worried about his well-being. The band members encouraged him to play up his Japanese roots for the time being if anyone asked. So sad that things should come to this.

The high number of medical emergencies resulting from the events of 9/11 created a strong demand for blood donors. I went with Bob Henson to one of the mobile blood reception units at Brooklyn College to donate. My body couldn’t handle losing so much blood at one time. During my donating session, I began to faint as my vision began to blacken. Either Bob or I alerted the attending nurse. Turns out my lack of manliness was a good thing. The nurse disengaged the blood drawing and gave me some apple juice to revive me. She also pandered over me a tiny bit. I got a good vibe from her and perhaps partly due to my delirium I worked up the courage to ask for her number and she gave it to me! Her name was Aurora. A couple of weeks later we went out on our first date. She was an attractive and friendly woman, and it seemed might be a consenting adult. There was one drawback, I had received a letter stating that my blood was denied because it turned out I was a Hepatitis B silent carrier. This was alarming and I worried about how I could have physical relations with a woman knowing this. I learned about how it was transmitted and was somewhat relieved to know that it could only be transmitted by bodily fluids. So, before I allowed our relationship to progress any further as it looked like it might, I was presented with the dilemma to tell her about my Hepatitis B. Will she freak out and walk away? Or will she respect my honesty and continue to see me?

I worked up the courage to tell her one day during a long walk on a nature trail. She did not hold it against me. She accepted it and we continued to have a good time together. She was also one of the first diabetics that I got to know closely. Our times together were not too numerous, but when we did come together, we had fun and enjoyed each other’s company. We could tell that we were probably not meant to be a true couple, but still it was fun to have a physical companion. 

Meeting and having a light-hearted fling with Aurora, was very good for my soul at that time. Up until Aurora, I had only known Ella and the breakup was still lingering in my heart and mind some two years later. I needed to break away from that mental mind loop and time with Aurora truly helped me to define myself in a new way as a single male. Thank you, Aurora!

As life was slowly going back to “normal” in the aftermath of 9/11, Jason and I had the Brooklyn Folk CD Release Party to prep for and promote. After all, this was my debut album! A big deal, right?? And boy, did I feel the notion of Who cares?? Especially in the wake of all the suffering and confusion around me in those post 9/11 days. While I did not lose anyone personally close to me in the attacks on the World Trade Center, several people around me did lose someone and there was a sense in the air that it was best to tread lightly when talking to people in case someone was directly affected. This naturally influenced my eagerness to freely promote my CD Release Party and album. Right out of the gate I had already lost enthusiasm as to the importance of my grand artistic statement. There were not many uplifting songs on this album either so I couldn’t help but second guess the promotion of my own music and live shows. What am I really trying to involve people in after all? I wasn’t totally sure.

Modus Tollens played our familiar stomping grounds The Elbow Room on October 11th. The CD Release Party for Brooklyn Folk took place at the same venue on October 24th. My performance was accompanied by Jason Hills on keyboards and backup vocals and Brooklyn College friend Patrick M. on guitar and backup vocals. The event was attended by 20-30 people, I sold some CDs, several of us went out to a nice restaurant afterwards. As humble as it was in scope, it was an important experience.

Now I was on the lookout for some new places to regularly gig to support and promote the new album. I found a place on Allen Street in the East Village - a little hole in the wall called Bar B. They gave me a shot. They had a small, elevated platform at the back of the bar which was where the performer went. I began playing regular weekly gigs there at the end of November. 

The year was almost over, but there were still finals and Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music performances, not to mention holidays to be enjoyed. On my 21st birthday I played a show at Bar B. Due to it being my birthday and the holiday season I was able to draw a large crowd and fill the small place. Another singer-songwriter named Kelsey sang me “Happy Birthday” from the stage during his performance. It was a jolly evening and a few of us drank a bit too much. The Christmas holidays came and went and before the year closed out Modus Tollens performed once more with Adam. In mid-December, our lead singer Adam Bank had informed us that he felt his priorities were shifting elsewhere and that he would be leaving the band. It was an inspired performance, and we were glad to part with Adam on a high note. Little did we know it would be our last show altogether. 


[4] I would often choose a western omelet or two sunny side up eggs with hash browns and 2 pieces of toast. I would put butter and jam on the toast and ample amounts of ketchup, salt, and pepper on the rest. I would easily consume 3 if not more cups of diner coffee with milk and sugar. 

[5] View a 2008 piano-guitar version on YouTube: Neil Walker & John Henry Sheridan – “Brooklyn Stomp”.

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