Monday, May 19, 2014

Jimmy Armstrong, dead at 55.

Jimmy Armstrong
     The great James Thurber once wrote, years after he had settled on the East Coast, that the clocks that struck in his dreams were often the clocks of Columbus.
    That's how it goes, not just for us guys from Ohio, but for everyone.
     When you leave your home town, it stays with you, lodged in your heart like a little snow globe, one that you take out on fewer and fewer occasions as time grinds on and give a gentle shake, trying to see the people inside through the swirling snows of yesteryear. It gets harder and harder to make them out, their figures fading as the years fly past. But they are still there, and occasionally one flickers into view, a faint ghost, to whirl once again for a moment before vanishing altogether.

     In Berea High School in the late 1970s, like all high schools, there were the jocks and the greasers—"racks" we called them, for murky reasons. There were the band geeks and the brains, the popular kids and the outcasts.
      And then there was Jimmy Armstrong, in a class all by himself. He was a cool cat. He proudly smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee, as well as other things, and philosophized. He played music. I remember pausing between classes, in the doorway of the school auditorium, listening, rapt, while he sat alone on stage in the empty room and noodled on an electric piano, all alone. He was good. 
     Jimmy was handsome, but had a deformed upper lip—it was a little thicker than it was supposed to be. He was sensitive about it—you were never supposed to ask him, and I never did. A substitute teacher once made a passing crack, probably in reaction to his mouthing off, and he stood up and pointed at her then chewed her out in a way I never forgot. I was dumbstruck that a kid could talk like that to a teacher, but that was Jimmy. The rules did not apply. He was Huck Finn.
     I can't remember why we hung out—it's been too long—but I know that once or twice I was at his house, near the fire station, and he was at mine. My guess is that Jimmy was cool, and coolness was something I sorely lacked, while he probably admired my smarts. I remember I used a word, "valkyrie," that he had never heard before. I explained to him what it meant, and he was just delighted. He was, he said, going to write a song about it. He was so happy, it made me happy. I'm not sure if he ever did, but I liked the idea of having an impact on someone who was creative, someone who was a musician, an artist. 
    For a few years after college I'd call Jimmy when  I went home to Berea to visit my folks. In 1984, he was opening for the Eurythmics at the Agora, and I went to see him play—at least I think it was him. There's this video online that gives you a sense of the music.  His brush with fame came in 1986, when he was on the TV show "Star Search" with Ed McMahon. But it was just a brush. I can't tell whether he was good or not, but either way, he never made it out of Berea. As the last line of his obituary put it: "But the ability to make something of his own inherent creativity continued to elude him." You grab, but the thing you're grabbing at dances mockingly away. I can relate to that.
    The last time I spoke with Jimmy was 20 years ago—I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show, talking about a book, and he phoned me in Chicago, so excited. Jimmy could have this little kid quality that cut through all the hipster pretense, an enthusiasm that was more endearing than hauteur could ever be, and I remember hearing him enthuse about seeing me on Oprah and smiling, thinking, "Not so cool now, are we, Jimmy?"
    The past 25 years of his life, I really have no idea. I went back to Berea with Edie, and he rolled by my parents' house with a friend. But the visit didn't go well; Jimmy was abrupt, even rude—I can't quite put my finger on why; perhaps in his view I was now conventional and domestic, playing house with this gal, while he was courting greatness. Maybe I caught him on a bad day. Edie didn't take to Jimmy, naturally, and that was that. Though that is not something to judge a person on. A woman who wrote to me from Berea a few days ago said she and her mom would often see Jimmy at church. "My mom and I always noticed how kind he was to his mother, how much he seemed to enjoy taking her to mass." That says a lot, but I couldn't tell you if he was generally a good or bad person, whether he lived a happy or sad life. Probably some mix of those, like most of us.
    The obituary on the Cool Cleveland web site mentions his "substance abuse demons"—The Plain Dealer specifies it as heroin.  Jimmy was the first person I ever heard mention "AA"—I think we were still in high school. I do remember bumping into him once downtown and us deciding to go to the state store to buy a bottle of wine, which we shared under a bridge in downtown Berea. Something novel for me, but a routine that Jimmy seemed familiar with. That sounds more debased that it really was—Berea was our hometown, as comfortable as an old shoe. Ducking under a bridge was something kids did on a summer's day, then. Some of us did, anyway. When we finished the bottle, I walked away thinking, "That was fun, but not how I want to spend my time." Maybe Jimmy should have left town and tried his luck at the big time. Maybe he did—I really didn't know him well. So maybe he did, though that can just end in another kind of disappointment.
    His funeral is today at St. Mary's Church in Berea, Ohio.  Jimmy Armstrong was 55.


  1. Neil,

    I am dumbfounded by this column. It almost comes off as snarky and a last chance to score points off of this guy. I know you didn't mean it that way but that's just how it appears to me.

    1. Well David, you are entitled to your reaction. As the great Samuel Johnson once said, "I have given you an argument, sir. I am not also obligated to give you an understanding."

    2. Agreed. However, I think I've changed my mind about having you write my obituary. :-)

  2. When I go, I hope someone cares enough to write something this true, honest and well-written, about me. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I certainly don't think this was snarky or disparaging. Jimmy appeared to be an interesting and very talented guy, who sadly left us much too early. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It didn't seem snarky to me, either, Sandy. It seemed like a good writer and thoughtful person trying to make some sense of something one can never really fully capture, either in print or pixels -- the reality of another person's life, in addition to the nature of one's relationship to that person. Especially when the person's life is at all unconventional, as this gentleman's evidently was, it's much easier said than done. Seemed to me that this post was the worthwhile and interesting result of a gentle shake of the snow globe, indeed.

      On the other hand, one could always fire off a remarkably irrelevant broadside at the leafy, suburban paradise to give us EGD aficionados a clearer understanding of why the folks at the Sun-Times have trouble figuring out what to do about having comments after the articles and columns they publish ...

    2. Sure. I think they have. The comments are the realm of a handful of zealous fans. I'd say that fewer than a dozen people constitute 90 percent of my comments. At a paper like the Sun-Times, it could be 100. To maintain a comments section after every story, to purge them of the knee-weakening racism, hatred, cruelty, libel, etc., is a lot of work. The question is, do we have a staffer or three yanking idiocy off our web-site full time so ... what? To give an outlet to people who can comment a hundred other places. I allow comments on my blog because people tend to be respectful here, but sometimes I get someone who thinks this is his chance to twirl like a ballerina in the arc light of his own thoughts, and it's not. So I have to dial back the access and vet the comment. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm not a social service, and I'm not the government. Ditto for the paper. They're trying to make money. I'm trying to have fun. Comments can work into both those goals, but it takes effort. It isn't the biggest issue, in my opinion.

  4. Neil,
    I read your column with interest. I just found out about Jimmy's death yesterday. I, too, moved away from that old snow globe Cleveland (born and raised in Berea to be precise) over 20 years ago - only the infrequent web perusal keeps me up to date.
    Maybe we met once? I dated Jimmy back then for a year or two. Nothing serious but we did have fun together. I was at the Eurythmics concert, too. Spent many hours at Jimmy's house, sitting on the porch or out in the back yard (wasn't there a gazebo or something back there?). His parents were sweet... I enjoyed talking to them. We would listen to whatever music he was excited about, make out in the back yard, go downtown for ribs (on the East side, the part of town few suburbanites went!) and bring them home. Eating those greasy ribs, sauce all over your hands, out in the back yard on a hot summer night, listening to Patsy Cline with the fireflies dancing. It was pretty magical. Shopping for vintage clothing (remember Maureen Burns and the Cleveland Shoppe?). Shows at the Phantasy with my fake ID.
    I graduated in '83, so Jimmy was a bit older than me. There certainly was not a more dangerous James Dean-sy guy in all of Berea - my parents, as you can imagine, weren't thrilled. He came to pick me up once and I'll never forget the shock of my Dad to see Jimmy there, looking sharp in his suit and pearl necklace!
    Jimmy always told me he wrote Pony Girl about me. He might have told that to many girls... he certainly would use his voice for good effect. I think he would make every person in the audience swoon... he had a lot of charisma. But he could be very cutting, very sarcastic, too.
    To read about his heroin addiction took me aback, for just a second. That wasn't something I took part in. I'm not sure when that took hold of him, but I wasn't aware. A little memory flickers now of learning about it, but I'd long since forgotten. Hadn't spoken to him for about 25 years.
    Thanks for bringing back some good memories :)
    Amy Boyer

  5. I met Jimmy at a rehab center called Y-Haven in 2006. He told me he had just returned from Las Vegas and couldn't believe he winded up of East 55th Street and Woodland. We hit it off immediately for some strange reason, because Jimmy was a solo act and I became to know first hand. I knew how to get up under his skin by saying what you doing "nigger" he'd get all red in the face and scream at me to never use that term. By the way I'm black. We were asked to do a play and I would write the script and he would write the musical score in which he did. To make a long story short Jimmy and I did graduate from the two year program. I stayed clean for 5 years and never saw Jimmy again. One thing about Jimmy I'll never forget when he heard someone say something he disagreed in group therapy with someone he would slap his forehead and shout "I should have had a V-8". That's the Jimmy I'll always remember.


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