Saturday, June 13, 2020
Happy birthday, Kier.
—"Where'd you go?"
Again. And again. Standing, side by side, over the turntable in room 210 of the sprawling Northwestern Apartments on Orrington Avenue. Setting the needle down. Listening to the opening chords of The Clash's "Safe European Home." That machine gun guitar and drums, then a firehose of South London verbiage. Lifting the needle. Silence. Returning to the start of the song. Over and over, and over, trying to parse the slushy words, like snatching bubbles out of a torrent.
That first line was easy.
"Well, we just got back and I wish I'd never leave now...."
The second, simple.
But that third line—what was it?
It had to be done. Because if Kier couldn't figure out the words, then how could Phil sing them? And if Phil couldn't sing the words, how could the Front Lines play the song? The needle lifted, and we started again.
Music was important. Words were important. Songs were important. The band was important. No band ever formed that wasn't, if only to the people in the band. Plus various hangers-on, like me. I wasn't, technically, in the band. But I was helping because I was there, his roommate freshman year, 1978, Northwestern University.
We had been assigned to the same room by a computer through our mutual hunger for coolness, even over personal comfort. On our housing forms, both Kier and I checked that smoking was A-OK with us, even though neither of us smoked. We didn't smoke, but we didn't want to be the kind of stick-in-the-mud losers who cared about that kind of thing—this was back before continually signaling your virtue with semaphore flags became a national obsession.
So we were stuck in a four-man quad with two smokers, Tim and Fitch. Fitch was a rich kid from Christmas Hill, Connecticut, who brought skis and golf clubs to college.
"Well the reason people are poor..." I would imitate him saying, in a plummy, Thurston Howell III voice, "is because they don't go out and get the money. I mean, the money's there."
Tim was a manic-depressive on lithium who had been institutionalized over the summer and was let out, if memory serves, so he could go to Northwestern and live with us, along with, briefly, the homeless man he met at Burger King and brought back to our room. This was not the college experience I had expected. I remember realizing, with a frisson of horror, that Tim was not going bald, organically. It was only on the side of his hair that he clonically ran his fingers through.
Fitch was gone by Christmas. He wasn't about to stick around, not when he had roommates like Kier, who once pushed him into a closet after a political discussion. And me, who braced the door closed with the old headboard of Fitch's bed—why was it deconstructed? Maybe because we had moved his furniture into the fire escape. We left him in there a long time. Tim took off too, by spring, leaving us two living in a four man quad.
That kind of thing tends to push people together, and I learned a lot about Kier, who was an exotic on several fronts: he had long hair that girls on our delightfully-coed floor loved to brush until it shone. He was from Washington, D.C.—who is from Washington, D.C.? He had been a Boy Scout. His parents were divorced.
He was a political science major, and what we would call today "woke." I remember him explaining what a terrible governor of California Ronald Reagan had been, years before he was elected president. He cared about world events, which vastly different from me, who cared almost exclusively about myself. We had nothing in common.
Especially when it came to music. I was pop: David Bowie, Peter Frampton, and especially Elton John, because my girlfriend back home adored him, and I caught that like a rash. The closest thing I had to discernment was love of Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," and that was more because it spoke to my personal brand of heartbreak. Otherwise, sentiment was fine. I had gone to see Harry Chapin twice in a month, first back at Blossom Music Center in Cleveland, then at Pick-Steiger Hall on campus.
Kier brought albums by the Clash, the Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, the B-52s—edgy stuff. But he didn't just listen to music, he made it. He was a musician. He brought with him a beautifully battered Fender Telecaster and an amp the size of a small refrigerator. And a Pignose—a small portable amp. I felt myself half a musician through osmosis, and loved even knowing the words, knowing what this stuff was called, the small electronic boxes his guitar plugged into—a phase shifter, a fuzzbox, a wah-wah pedal.
Kier was a crackerjack guitarist in the Jimmy Hendrix mode, who killed the frat talent show by playing behind his head. (Was it Robin Trower's "Sinner's Song"? It's only been 41 years, but I seem to remember that was the song). He played it with a bow and, at another gig, at the pathetic little shack of a nightclub the school ran, finished a riff, and pointed the bow at me, in the audience. I was thrilled. Not in the band. But close.
If that seems needy and fanboyish, remember I was in the Medill School of Journalism, with no interest in reporting or newspapers or news. My general goal was to be a novelist, a humorist of some sort, cut from the Robert Benchley cloth, to wear a fez and lead conga lines out of "21" in between polishing timeless gems of humor to display in the gold setting of The New Yorker.
Except I couldn't write, and didn't know anybody at The New Yorker or anywhere else, and didn't have much ambition, not the real solid kind that pushes you to try and do and achieve, as opposed to the vaporous kind that flickers just outside your range of vision and keeps you constantly startled and stumbling, twisting around trying to catch a glimpse of something that isn't there.
Kier, on the other hand, was close to a star on campus. I have a memory of frat boys lining the stage while he played, on their knees, salaaming, fluttering their hands to heaven. It was close to worship.
Helping the band put me into Belmont Avenue clubs years before I would have found them on my own. Lugging equipment upstairs into Tut's then, being the first one there, dancing by myself in the center of the floor. I became very good at dancing alone, and particularly like to do it after someone I asked to dance had turned me down, my way of saying, "Fuck you, honey, I just wanted to dance." Not that the person I had asked noticed or cared. But it felt like a small victory.
We painted the walls of the room black, with all sorts of bars and lines running everywhere. That summer I visited him in Washington. I can still see his mother, in half glasses, primly typing her church newsletter. Other people, living other lives. It was an epiphany.
I can't go into it all. You'd be reading for hours. By junior year, he floated off toward the band, and I was exiled to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for a very unhappy internship toting up ambulance runs for the Green Bay Press Gazette. This was hard work, and not what I wanted at all. This wasn't it at all.
Meanwhile, Kier and the Front Lines put out 45s. They played gigs, and lived in a big house on Forest Avenue. We weren't that friendly then, but kept up and, I believe around then, drove to New York City. We went to the Thai Hut on Devon Avenue—the first time I had tasted Thai food— left at 6 p.m., and at dawn pulled into Manhattan with Little Feat on the tape deck.
"Oh the sunlight looks so pretty.
God it's such a sight.
Like rolling into New York City.
With the skyline in the morning light.
Roll on through the night."
My first job took me to Los Angeles. Another dead end. I tried to last six months and lasted three. Back in Chicago, Kier would tear Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" cartoons out of the Reader and mail them to me, in that half support, half mockery that friends do. When that job blew up, I drifted eastward, pausing to live with my folks in Colorado. When I returned to campus, one year after graduation, a certified failure to launch, I moved in with Kier—in the third floor of his house on Forest. "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Two weeks on a cot set up in an empty attic under an inverted V of shiny insulation, watching the bare bulb, hands folded behind my head, thinking, "How did I fuck this up so badly? And so fast." The starting gun went off. And there I am, face planted a yard from the blocks, trying to get to my feet while my classmates lap me, one year already gone.
Kier's band, meanwhile, was hot, with a young thumb-slapping bassist, recording sessions and influential people interested. But success of the kind that allows a person to live on it was elusive, over the next decade Kier faced a choice, and chose wisely.
"Music was his life," sang Harry Chapin, who knew how to write a lyric, "it was not his livelihood." I thought it a testament to Kier's character that eventually he set aside his guitar and joined the working world, as did I. The novel went into a drawer and I began rolling the stone of professional journalism up the hill. We both, not stars, but practitioners of the possible.
We knew another student, Nathan, a gaunt, pop-eyed, jittery guy who also wanted to be a musician. A year younger. I remember sitting in his dorm room while he explained to me that he was going to be a rock star, and I just looked at him like he was crazy.
But he wasn't crazy. He was driven.
Speaking of driving. Kier and I were driving in the broken down blue van the band used. And there was Nathan, walking along the road. So we pulled over and gave him a lift. He asked Kier what he was doing, and what Kier was doing was working at Student's Publishing.
"Well," sneered Nathan, radiating contempt—his superpower, "somebody's gotta frame the artwork."
I don't know whether singing in Urge Overkill amounts to a life well-lived. But I've never, in the past 40 years, cared enough to find out. While Kier and I have been in constant communication as we pushed our lives forward. I can't remember Kier ever being in a bad patch—he's far too stable for that. Though I remember helping him move into a crappy little apartment on Broadway, and worrying for him. You're living HERE? I though, but didn't say. There was a pipe running across the ceiling, maybe seven feet up, and I remember staring at it, grimly, wondering, Is this the pipe Kier'll hang himself from? Of course I was projecting my own insecurities more than anything else. He was fine. Kier is always fine. I have many good friends, but if I had to pick one to be holding the rope that I was clutching while I dangled off a cliff, I'd pick Kier.
Which reminds me: back on campus, I was trying stand-up comedy. I had to try something. We had some kind of group, comic performers. I can't even remember their names. But I wore hard contact lenses, trying to make myself more palatable, and one night, waiting to go on in some forgotten club, I left them in too long and my eyes swelled shut. I ended up at St. Francis Hospital, where they treated by abraded corneas, covered my eyes with bandages, and told me I could go home.
"How?" I asked.
Who brought you?
Nobody brought me. I came in an ambulance. A nurse handed me a phone. What number to dial? It was 3 o'clock in the morning.
I called Kier. Which is as good a definition of a friend as you're going to find: your friend is the guy you call to come get you at the hospital at 3 a.m. He rode his bike over and walked me back to my apartment.
Life clicked by, day by day, year by year. I can see my first real apartment in Oak Park, on Washington Street, with the aluminum deco sconces. Kier called from New Orleans: he had asked Cathleen to marry him. A nurse, as grounded as he is, and one of the prettiest women I have ever seen. I remember my advice when he had said he was thinking about asking her to marry him: "Well, if you're not certain you ever want to get married, then give it thought. But if you might want to marry somebody, someday, then by all means ask her right now. Because you'll never find a better woman willing to give you the time of day." Or words to that effect.
So he got married—I was the best man. Sorry Kier, about forgetting the boutonnieres back in the refrigerator of my apartment on Logan Boulevard, and the mad dash that Edie had to go to retrieve them so they could be pinned on as the music swelled for you to walk down the aisle. A little bit of unnecessary drama and tension, I know. But it all worked out okay.
For a number of years we'd grab a movie in the three days between my birthday and his. But family and work, time and routine, plus there not being a convenient way to get from Naperville to Northbrook, all got in the way. Which was okay. We didn't need frequent check-ins. We had a past. We knew. It all worked out okay.
That's how I felt last week, turning 60. An astounding, perhaps Kier-like calm. It had all worked out okay. Better than okay. Great. Not great in the usual sense of the term. Not famous. There was no "Steinberg at Sixty" retrospective at the Chicago History Museum, which I could imagine if not achieve. But greatness is overrated. Hemingway was great at 60 and shot himself in the head at 61. Frankly, I feel I've found myself a better gig. I am lucky in love, blessed by work I like to do, and so rich in friends, the oldest and best being Kier, who didn't become a star, like Nathan, later Nash. But he didn't have to be. Never being a star also meant never becoming a has-been either. He didn't die at 28, like Jim Morrison. He didn't have some hit in 1993 that everybody has forgotten by now. He isn't some Oh-yeah-I-remember-that-guy in a non-age appropriate haircut, a dangly pirate earring and mascara, playing to four people at the Heartland Cafe. He cut his hair, raised two great sons, became a Christian and a grandfather and a good, thoughtful friend, the kind who sends CDs of music you might like for your birthday.
Songs on Apple iTunes, by the way, now scroll the lyrics to songs. No laborious guesswork necessary.
That tricky line to "Safe European Home" is, "Who that Martian arrival at the airport, yeah?"
No wonder we couldn't figure it out. Something of a let-down, to find out. But hey, that's life. You wait 40 years to learn something that wasn't worth knowing in the first place. Maybe what was worthwhile was in the figuring out part, not the mystery we were figuring. Which comes as no surprise. Maybe that's wisdom.
On Wednesday I saw the photo montage Kier put on YouTube—our college life, photos I had never seen, jumping to marriages, to kids, to his kids' marriages. Putting this together took planning, consideration, work I called Edie up to my office to see it.
"What am I going to do?!?!" I wailed. "His birthday is three days away." I always get blindsided by his acts of consideration. All those mixtapes, then CDs of music, arriving promptly on my birthday. Thoughtful. Did I ever return the favor? I hope so, in some other, smaller way.
Edie, of course, as she always does, assessed the situation immediately and offered the perfect solution.
"Write something," she said.
Editor's note: Caren Jeskey's post will appear next week.