2007 - On My Own but Not Alone

2007 – On My Own but Not Alone

I woke on New Year’s Day in my own apartment for the first time in my life. The apartment was in the basement of a home on East 53rd St. between Avenues T and S. My landlord Florence was a kind woman who lived with her friendly grandson Mark. They would become like extended family. I was emerging from a darker yet more seductive world of suffering and delusion into a brighter yet stricter world of possibilities and hope. Naturally this was not a smooth and seamless transition. 

I was spending a lot of time with Felicia. We would hang out with her friends at parties and gatherings. We would spend time at my new apartment. We would also hike together with a hiking club that she still affiliated with from her high school days. She was a pesco-vegetarian. She loved cheese and sushi but did not eat any meat. I respected this about her. I felt it was the better way to live although I was not ready for such a commitment myself. And I truly had no idea if I ever would be willing to change my diet significantly. There was a vague sense of guilt or un-ease every time I ordered a meat dish on the menu at a restaurant. I recognized that some animal had to have been slaughtered for my 20-30 minutes of pleasure and that the dish was probably not in my best health interest anyway. However, living this way was so deeply ingrained with my lifestyle I couldn’t really fathom any drastic changes. I could be doing much worse, I thought. 

With the move out of Mom’s house and into a place of my own, I had entered a new chapter. I felt free yet there was a strong element of loneliness. My brother was saddened by my leaving the house (even though I had the sense that he wanted me to leave for a long time), and I was no longer in communication with my longtime friend Jack Lanza after the breakup of our band Levelsix. My main supports were Mom, Rosemarie, Felicia, and Sam Ackerman. For the first few weeks in the new place, I would fall asleep on the carpeted floor not far from the TV which was playing a VHS recorded copy of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, an interview conducted by Bill Moyers. I found this conversation incredibly soothing to my soul and it kept me company in these lonely times.

I visited with two mentors from college. I met with the lovely Lars Frandsen[1] my former guitar ensemble instructor. It was good to see him. Over my years at Brooklyn College, he came to be someone I considered a true friend. He had repeatedly supported and encouraged my work as a guitar composer and empowered me to find opportunities to debut many of my classical guitar works for both solo and small ensembles. Visiting him at this time gave me a glimpse of what life as a University Professor connected to the classical guitar might be like. However much I appreciated him and his presence there, I was not confident that a similar path would be right for me.

I also met with my former jazz and music composition instructor, the inspiring Salim Washington[2]. Our meeting was fun. Salim was also a musical mentor to me. He was a composer, teacher, performer, and a free spirit. I identified with and admired his willingness to both play by the rules and break them simultaneously. He told me about his new composition project like a child showcasing a new beloved toy. It was refreshing to see that even at his stage in the game, many years a professional, he was still enjoying himself and finding a way to blend both his teaching and composing. As his specialty was jazz and instrumental music, his path was also not quite one that I could see myself following.

In the spring Felicia and I were granted spots on a Quaker retreat. We went upstate NY to an old farmhouse set on spacious grounds. It was an old-fashioned feel for a weekend of tranquility and somewhat communal living. There was a simple bookshelf near the reception desk upon which were some unadorned reading materials. These booklets and books emanated purity, peace, simplicity, and inspired in me a felt sense to be a writer. I encountered E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered - a concept that resonated deeply. I strongly considered becoming a Quaker. I was hoping that Felicia and I might find a spiritual path which we could walk together. If Felicia had felt strongly about Quakerism, perhaps we would have gone that route together. However, when she revealed her true feelings that Quakerism was not for her, I was open to continue to seek unto perhaps we could find common ground.

I was approached through a mutual friend to compose the music for a public dance performance that would take place involving a large group of dance therapists on the steps of our very own Brooklyn Borough Hall. This was an exciting and unique challenge. I met with the woman who commissioned me, Marylee, for her to hear how I was coming along. Most of our communication was through email or phone. I labored long and hard at my computer in the main room of my new apartment. I had a keyboard set up there connected to my desktop computer by a MIDI cable. I had never really composed a large musical work like this to completion on this scale before. Nor had I ever produced finished audio for public consumption by myself before. It was a foray into a new realm of musical creation skills, and I appreciated it.

In my new apartment I did not have an internet connection, nor any television channels. I would have to travel to Mom’s house or Brooklyn College campus to check emails or go online. I had a landline telephone and a flip cell phone with only basic functions. If I wanted to watch something it had to be on VHS or DVD. Whenever I worked on the computer at home, it was offline. What a blessing to be able to concentrate! I read a lot and was willing to watch what few movies I had access to on repeat in the background to sometimes keep me company. I also had a stereo and my music collection of CDs and cassette tapes. 

Shortly after reading Philip K. Dick’s strange book The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, I had a weird experience. The word WASHESH clearly appeared to me in a dream which felt somehow significant but mysterious. I mentioned it to my friend Lavender[3] one day. She told me she sometimes dances around her apartment chanting nonsense syllables or speaking in tongues, and that she feels a very special sort of feeling from this. Interesting. Later that week Felicia and I were hot and heavy in bed, but we knew we did not have much time to spend together that day, so I thought we’d better shift gears. I asked her to recite a word with me repeatedly like a mantra to help us calm down and regain our composure. Thinking of my recent dream, she suggested we recite the word WASHESH. We did so and quickly cooled down. As we lie there unmoving the phone rang. When I got up 20 minutes later, I saw that I had received a voicemail from my estranged buddy Jack Lanza. I called him back that day. We spoke for hours bringing each other up to speed on our personal journeys over the past several months.

In mid-April, Felicia and I undertook a three-day fast called the Master Cleanser which involved nothing but water with a few minimal ingredients (cayenne pepper, honey, and lemon). No food or caffeine. I learned about myself and how powerful my relationship was to food and coffee. I was surprised to notice that not eating all day made it difficult to fall asleep at night because I hadn’t devoted so much energy to digestion. On the evening of the third day, I had a rehearsal conducting one of my pieces with the Brooklyn College Guitar Ensemble. I was feeling deeply hungry but was amazed that I had plenty of energy for the rehearsal.

Jason Hills and I had been in communication about my visiting him at his current residence in Albuquerque, NM. I asked him if he’d be down for recording an album of acoustic covers of heavy metal songs and he said yes. On May 10th I flew out for a long weekend there with him. I enjoyed being in the dry, sunny southwestern environment. On a small trip to Santa Fe, we picked up a souvenir Native American drum which we used during the recording session. The very basic audio that we captured on this trip encapsulated a rich and soulful vibe. Some months later I packaged this 10-track cover album as Spirit of Metal and made tens of DIY copies with self-drawn artwork and handed them out to some friends and students[4]

During the summer, while Felicia was on a long trip with her friend in Europe, Jack and I went for a short stay in Greece to experience the country and visit Larisa Vasilakis. We visited various parts of the ancient city of Athens including nearby beaches and the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion. We then went on a dreamy trip to the Greek island of Antiparos for a two-day camp out. The weather and water were fantastic, and the vibe lovely. 

Also, it so happened that Brooklyn’s own Type O Negative was performing at Gagarin Open Air Festival near Athens. Thanks to Jack’s craftiness, he and I managed to get ourselves backstage by telling the people at the gate that we were friends of the band and on their guest list - partially true. After the Type O Negative performance, we somehow finagled our way backstage! I didn’t feel great about stretching the truth but was open to stretching myself in new and uncomfortable ways for the sake of adventure. We spotted a few of the guys in the band who were neither excited nor surprised to see us. There did not seem to be much enthusiasm in their camp. After the show, we found our way to the band’s green room. We said hello to whichever band members were present and went to hang out with Pete Steele in the back of the room. He greeted us with some vague recognition. “Ah, it’s the Viking!” he said to me. He remembered me by associating the Norwegian flag I had placed on the neck of my Gibson Epiphone Flying V with my long blonde hair and beard. Pete was sitting on a couch drinking wine with one or two attractive girls nearby kind of taking care of him. He was joking around, trying to be a host of sorts, but seemed to not be feeling too great about any of it. I’ve always appreciated Pete Steele’s equanimity. The joke was that despite his strong language and controversial song lyrics he was not actually prejudiced because he hated all humans equally (himself included). He was also willing to live his life in public as an example for better or worse which I deeply appreciate. Thanks Uncle Pete[5]!

Jack and I walked away from the arena into the Athenian summer night to the sounds of headlining band Paradise Lost echoing behind us. I clearly felt that the rock n’ roll dream was a lousy illusion. What’s the point of touring Europe if the band members did not seem to be enjoying themselves? We had gotten the vibe that they all couldn’t wait to go home. I get it, not for me. This experience was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of my own rock n’ roll dream. 

In August, I was wrapping up the dance piece for Brooklyn Borough Hall. On the day before the performance, I jumped on my bike with a freshly burned CD and rode about 1 hour to deliver it for rehearsal. It was an exciting moment. The next day we arrived for the multicultural humanistic event. After the dance therapists and representatives from various ethnicities finished their more organized performance, the public was welcomed to join in. There we were altogether on and off the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall dancing up a storm. It was quite spontaneous, just a lot of people enjoying being together and moving freely to the music. It was a thrill to hear the music that I labored long and hard on blaring from the speakers and to see a huge mass of people moving sympathetically to the motion of the sonic ocean that I had created. It was a high point for me as a composer and creative human being. I felt deep gratitude and appreciation for both having the opportunity to participate in this and for challenging myself to take it on. 

After this joyful and expansive summer, I now had to consider how I was going to continue to provide for myself. I had some savings in the bank thanks to living at home with a low rent for several years, but it would soon run out and I knew I was going to need to find another source of income within the year. I was teaching private lessons at Brooklyn Music House and from my apartment. And seasonally I worked part-time for registration at Brooklyn College, but this accumulated income would not be able to sustain living in my own apartment unless supplemented. By September, I was looking into filling a music teacher position in the public school system if possible. Even though I did not have the proper credentials to get hired as a full-time teacher I had heard that I could possibly be hired on a per-diem basis like a substitute would, yet function as a regular teacher at least for a period. 

I managed to get a preliminary interview at Brooklyn College for a position at an inner-city high school in East New York. It sounded challenging, but it intrigued me. They really needed a music teacher as some kids were kind of demanding it and it was already October. I went for the interview. The principal Miss Alcazar spoke with me briefly, uninterested in my resume, more curious if I could survive the kids. She put me in a room for 30 minutes or so with a handful of students who basically auditioned me. I had to prove that I had what they considered the goods and that I wouldn’t be chewed up and spit out. I passed the test and started shortly after. 

Towards the beginning of my teaching high school in East New York, I ran into an old acquaintance on the B3 (Avenue U) bus one day, Taylor Scutto. Taylor was a neighborhood guy and music lover. We had both attended James Madison High School in the same grade though we did not cross paths much at that time. We first interacted when Taylor was hosting his own radio show at Brooklyn College in early 2002. He had seen me perform on campus and invited me to be a guest on his show. I appeared on it with two Pencil People: Bob Henson and Aftab Motoyama. We talked, performed, and Taylor played some tracks from my debut album Brooklyn Folk. Him and I then fell out of touch until that fateful day in late 2007.

We began talking music. At that moment, I was trying to educate myself on newer music that young people might be listening to. I was especially interested in trying to understand rap, hip hop, and reggae as this was the music that my new high school students were most familiar with. But I knew very little about any new music that had been released from about the year 2000 onwards in general. Taylor offered to visit me, bring some CDs, and tell me about various newer artists that I was not familiar with. So began a valuable and sincere friendship. 


[1] Listen to musical performances on YouTube: Lars Frandsen.

[2] Listen to musical performances on YouTube: Salim Washington.

[3] Lavender Vale Wallenstein is a unique and fascinating human being, older than me by a few decades, with whom I share a mystic spiritual bond. The two of us first met at a yoga class at Marine Park’s Salt Marsh Nature Center around 2005.

[4] It was not until 2017 (a decade later) that I began to officially distribute songs from this session as singles via CD Baby. By then I had educated myself on cover song licensing and fortunately it had become simpler to do for an independent musician like myself.

[5] Most friends of mine who had a chance to meet Peter Steele might agree with me in referring to him affectionately as “Uncle Pete”. I don’t think he was aware of the appellation himself, but it’s my/our casual way of expressing our love for him as a human, beyond his rock stardom.

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