I love music. Here's what's on my IPOD now:
Dwight Yoakim, Merle Haggard, The Mavericks
Lana Del Ray, Vampire Weekend, Television, Tennis,...read more Massive Attack, Yo
La Tengo, George Jones.
My essay collection, Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, was published in 2016.
My wife is from Iran, a refugee. She's gorgeous and is a Buddhist. Our daughters look exotic
and no one knows what to do with them. My wife is also half-Jewish, and so am I. I think
that makes our daughters half-Jewish, too, but since I slept through tenth grade Biology, I'm
not sure. That's my dog Max over there>>>>>
He's a Carolina Wild Dog.
Keith loved Eugene Chadbourne records, hand-rolled cigarettes with Drum tobacco, winged-tip shoes, and his six-hour stint each Saturday night playing jazz for radio station WUOT. And for a year or two, he loved Laura.
Laura was painfully thin, model thin, and no doubt she had modeled in her past. During the months we knew her, though, I don’t think she did much of anything other than try to hang on to Keith.
Whatever else I could say about Laura, I’ll say this first: she found the right vet for our sick cat, a vet named Carlos who doctored poor Hugo, a stray we found living in my Victorian Lit professor’s parking lot. We weren’t sure that Hugo would make it on the night we brought him home. For the first few days we housed him in the studio apartment my wife’s aunt and uncle were renting up the street from us, because if he was contagious, we didn’t want our other cat, Angela, to be infected. The day after we secured Hugo, my wife’s aunt called and said she couldn’t find the little kitty anywhere. We rushed over. No way, she said, he managed to escape from the apartment. We turned everything inside out, but no Hugo. Finally my wife’s uncle, a former teacher from Iran, said he had heard of cats that hid behind kitchen stoves. So we pulled the old Hotpoint from its place, and sure enough, there was Hugo wedged into the crawl space at the rear right of the appliance. Safe and sound, but still with a runny nose.
So Dr, Carlos’s administrations restored Hugo to sound body, though not sound mind. Those parking lot days made him beyond ordinary cat skittishness. There were days when he’d voluntarily jump into my lap, but the least noise—a closet door shutting perhaps—caused instant fleeing, and it might be hours before we’d find him behind or underneath other household objects, the spaces of his own sanity. Yet, Hugo lived to a ripe old eleven, and at the end, he followed our older daughter around and around like a puppy.
Much the same way, it turned out, that Laura followed Keith around.
So thanks for that one Laura, and sorry it all didn’t work out as well for you as it did for Hugo.
Keith played reed instruments: saxes and bassoons mainly. The first time I saw him, he was towering over my friend Tracy. Tracy and I met in film class, a Hitchcock/Renoir seminar. Tracy sold pot, delivered pizza, and took courses for fun. He and Keith shared a one-bedroom place in the Fort Sanders area of Knoxville, and on that day I met them standing on the windy corner of Clinch and 17th Street, Keith looked up and away and anyplace but at me. Or at Tracy for that matter. I’m not sure he even said hello that day, so it was a shock when he showed up at our Monday night Film Society meeting a few weeks later. Even more shocking that after the meeting, he joined us for beers at Sam and Andy’s Roman Room on the strip. I’m not sure, but I think it was our mutual love for Tom Waits’ gravelly tunes that bonded Keith and me. Rain Dogs had just been released, and with his shaggy dirty blond hair and dark trench coats, Keith reminded me of the rain dogs Waits wrote about.
A rain dog is a poor beast that, after a mighty rain, finds all his regular scent-markers washed away so that he can no longer find his home. He just wanders afterward, and if he’s lucky, maybe there is one lingering urine signpost that will direct him home.
So that was Keith, a purebred Rain Dog. I never knew where he came from—Chattanooga, Pigeon Forge?—and I wasn’t sure where he was headed, what he wanted to do. He had finished school, and kept himself in smokes from his radio gig. Maybe it didn’t matter to him much in those days, because he had Laura, and for that time, anyone would have envied him this girl with the high cheekbones, the slightly slanted eyes, and the tall body out of Vogue.
I had gotten married in between the times I met Keith. My wife and I lived in an old house on Clinch Avenue, a two-story Victorian sitting on the north side of Clinch, high on the hill, approachable only by a winding driveway and broken into several apartments. Our apartment was in the very back, one side of which completely windowed and with a gorgeous view. In the winter, though, those badly insulated panes let in so much wind that we had to close off that room, and even then, that winter, the winter Keith re-entered my life, we nearly froze.
So many new people entered our lives that winter, the only one we spent in the old house on Clinch. Most of those who found us were undergraduates, students who saw me as a sort-of grad school mentor and who saw my olive-skinned wife as an exotic, beautiful woman of great interest. We had purple jesus parties, pot-drenched record nights where Laurie Anderson, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins reigned. I felt like we were the center of something then where Literature majors argued with Philosophy majors while film and art students laughed in all the corners.
Keith brought jazz to these gatherings: Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon. He told me about Be-Bop and what it meant to the generation before us. It sounded like a world existing off-planet somewhere, or else I was more of a rain dog than I had ever thought. Jazz to me before Keith lay in the worlds of Dixieland and Swing, genres my parents loved. My parents knew Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Pete Fountain, but they never spoke and so I assumed knew nothing of “Bird.”
My love, of course, was Rock, and to my relief, Keith knew Rock too. He found Elvis Costello a semi-genius and thought the breakup of The Clash was semi-tragic. He could speak eloquently on the Beatles’ influence, but what he also liked to do was trash the pseudo jazz of Chuck Mangione, Spyro Gyra, David Sanborn. He’d look off and above the room as he ran down Kenny G, and I thought he was either a snob, or the brightest guy I knew.
My friend David never trusted Keith, though:
“I think he’s a phony. Who really likes the stuff he likes anyway?”
And by that, David meant more than the giants of modern jazz. He meant Keith’s love of Eugene Chadbourne, or in David’s view, his name-dropping of the quirky singer. Maybe David saw more into this picture than I did. Maybe he knew more than I could give him credit for, since David generally looked up to me especially after his former best friend was killed in front of David’s eyes in a gas explosion on David’s father’s property as they were doing some chores for David’s dad.
“We had just finished singing “Gardening at Night,” because we loved REM and it was getting on to evening. Then there was this flash, and Chris was gone.”
My wife and I reached out to David and his girlfriend Suzanne. We were their consolation. Their friends.
Back then, I didn’t think about why I was friends with anyone. Usually, an intriguing face, someone who spoke his or her mind, someone who offered me chunks of personal time: these were the people I collected as friends. I considered Keith a friend that second time I met him. He looked at me like he thought I understood his views, like I would listen to him wherever the conversation went. It helped that we both liked French films and American independents like Jim Jarmusch. We saw Stranger Than Paradise together, with my wife and with Laura. We laughed. We got the Hungarian jokes.
Maybe that’s why Keith invited me to the radio station one night to hear his show:
“You’ll enjoy it. I’ve got plenty of smokes and you can stay as long as you want.”
The show started at 11 and lasted until 5 AM. I think I lasted till 3 that night. The many numbers Keith played are lost on me now. All except one: Miles Davis’ rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” It’s still one of my favorite things: that seemingly light tune of leaving, or heading out on your own with or without any signposts. But when I think about the other nights with Keith, things just don’t seem as light or as friendly. Maybe it’s only now that I see the terms of our friendship, the distance between our signs. I didn’t always understand what Keith said, but I should have been paying more attention. Though he was a friend for a time, it would have been a better thing for me if I reckoned much earlier with the kind of friend he was.
Though we spent time together as couples, the friendship was mainly Keith’s and mine. Laura wanted to be friends with my wife, Nilly, and while Nilly did her best, I know she was doing this only for me. She found Laura pleasant enough, but she wasn’t looking for a new friend.
“She seems a bit needy,” Nilly said about Laura.
I didn’t want to think she was right because Keith and Laura, I thought, were destined to be our first friends as a couple. I thought we made a striking foursome. With my long red hair, my wife’s black curls, Keith’s blond bushy top, and Laura’s Twiggy cut, we could be famous in our own pathways. Of course, I’m speaking here about Knoxville, most famous then for hosting a form of the World’s Fair, for Volunteer football, and for the Butcher Brother’s banking nightmare. When you’re in your mid-twenties, though, fame follows you or leads you by your distracted eyes past all accountability.
Sometimes we’d sit in one of our apartments, drinking wine, smoking, listening to the latest reissue of a Bebop record from the 50’s. Did this seem real even then, or just something we did on Saturday nights before walking down to the campus strip to indulge in chronic pizza joints?
Once, before Keith and even before Nilly, I ventured to the strip with my best friend Les, who moved to New Orleans for a job that next year, to hear an upcoming band. This group played to a house of fifty or sixty in a club called Hobo’s, a dive bar if there ever was one. The group’s lead singer reminded Les of Elvis. Mainly it was the sneer on his lips, but he moved as he performed in ways we hadn’t seen.
“This band’s gonna be big, Barr,“ Les said.
I’m sure that Les has been right again in his life, but he was never more right than on this night.
For REM got really big.
So in the Keith and Laura days, we discovered that REM was playing the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on the weekend before Thanksgiving. We made plans to go, to spend the night at a Red Roof Inn on Atlanta’s I-285 outskirts, something affordable. The show was on a Saturday night, and that afternoon, we drove to the Fox to get our tickets. After I paid, I turned and saw a woman sidling up to a finely-chiseled man.
“I always called you Baby-Cannon,” she said to the guy who, I recognized was former Auburn and Atlanta Falcon running back William Andrews. This was a strange moment for me, for growing up in Alabama I knew Andrews well. He played for my hated rival, the rival that had gained the upper hand on my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide. In fact on this day Alabama and Auburn were meeting again in the annual game known as “The Iron Bowl.” This was a game I had cared about all my life. My interest had waned in the past couple of years, though, as school and marriage weighed more heavily than what I was starting to believe was a meaningless pastime.
The woman asked Andrews if he knew the score of this year’s game.
“Yes! Auburn is leading now, and they just started the fourth quarter. War Eagle!”
My heart felt pierced, and I ran back to the car where the others were waiting. I said nothing, but as we headed back to the motel, I thought about my father sitting at home and agonizing over this game. I used to sit with him. And now, where was I?
We were just going to clean up a bit and hit the town, and though my friends and my wife couldn’t understand it, I had to turn the TV on. Auburn had just pinned Alabama deep in its own territory with one of those precise Auburn punts. Less than a minute to go. I watched, as I would any looming disaster unfolding before me, as Bama quarterback Mike Shula completed a couple of passes, the last one to Greg Richardson who dragged his tackler out of bounds, stopping the clock with five seconds left in the game. Bama sent out its kicker, Van Tiffin, to try a 56-yard field goal. On our motel room 24-inch barely color TV set, I saw Tiffin’s kick sail through the uprights of the goal post, good and true. Bama had won, a fact lost on my wife and friends who were standing outside on the motel steps calling for me to hurry. I emerged, elated, but with no one I cared to tell, especially not even Keith who considered football something akin to using curdled cream in your coffee.
Even then, ashamed to be basking in macho-associated glory, I wasn’t bothered by the terms of our friendship.
Keith and I wanted to browse in Atlanta’s famous record store, Wax and Facts, in the Little Five Points area. Keith kept pulling out old Charlie Parker records, and since I had no money for records, I simply thumbed through the racks of Neil Young, examining items I already owned.
I felt Laura before I saw her.
“Look who it is,” she said, nodding to my right.
I looked up and right into Michael Stipe’s eyes and acne-scarred face. He was taller than I thought, and he was with a female friend. He saw us watching him all right, and then he did something I’d never imagine he would.
He put his hand over his mouth and snickered or giggled, whichever you prefer, like we were in high school, and had been caught by the popular kid as we were pretending to be so cool. None of us spoke, and before we knew it, Michael and his friend walked out of the store. After all, he had a show to deliver in less than two hours, and would be there to adore him.
Gathering ourselves, we drove across Ponce de Leon to Virginia Highlands to an Ethiopian Restaurant Keith had discovered, The Blue Nile, where we used spongy bread to scoop the vegetarian stews. The waitress, a beautiful, braided, Ethiopian woman, told us that Ethiopian tradition declares that lovers feed each other, and so the four of us did. I knew that Nilly and I meant it, but when I looked over at Laura feeding Keith, I saw embarrassment in his eyes, and a refusal to participate in this particular ritual.
The REM show was a blur, and I suppose they played all the songs available to us in that year, 1985. I thought it was strange at the time, though I no longer do, that what mattered most to me most during the show was Alabama beating Auburn that afternoon, and what my Dad and even William Andrews was doing right then.
Nothing bad happened to us that weekend, but to my knowledge, the four of us went out only once more afterward.
On the strip one Friday night, we stood in a crowded nameless bar watching Jane’s Addiction go through various sets of music that none of us much appreciated. Yet we looked so hip standing there: four semi-glamorous people seeking confirmation of ourselves.
Actually, my wife was seeking only to cease being irritated by the noise:
“I’m going home,” she shouted in my good ear. “You can stay if you want.”
Today I wouldn’t think of letting her leave alone, nor would I hang out listening to music I didn’t care for. But then, I couldn’t walk out on the middle of a set when others might notice my lack of cool.
“Ok, I won’t be out late,” I said. She took our car, and Keith and Laura promised me a lift back up the hill. Except, that fifteen minutes after Nilly left, so did Keith:
“I have a show later tonight, and I need to get ready,” he said. He barely brushed Laura’s cheek as he walked out.
“Do you want to stay,” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
But the music got no better, and when the band broke 45 minutes later, we had had enough. We climbed into Laura’s vintage Volvo, and as she drove us away, she said, “Keith has been acting so strange lately.”
I hadn’t noticed, and if I did, I passed it off as the quirks of a musician, an artist in contemplation. When we got to our winding driveway, Laura pulled over and parked for a minute.
“I wish he’d talk to me,” she said. “I just don’t know what he’s thinking.”
I wondered then if I had ever really known what Keith was thinking, but at that moment, I suspected that he wasn’t thinking any longer about Laura. And at that moment, she leaned over and kissed me not quite lightly enough on the lips.
For all those years I dated this is the way so many of them ended: a kiss at the door, a promise of tomorrow. I didn’t say anything to Laura but goodbye, and I thought I would be seeing her, with or without Keith, again. Nothing sinister or ulterior. She was a friend, I thought. Like Keith.
A few days later, though, I ran into Keith just before our weekly Film Society meeting.
“I’m not coming tonight,” he said. “I broke up with Laura, and I’m going home for a while. Just don’t want to see anybody tonight.”
I didn’t see Keith for about a week. I don’t remember how I discovered this next fact, whether David told me, whether I saw them at a party together, but the fact was that Keith had started seeing Suzanne, perhaps before and surely right after she broke up with David. I can see them in a lounge chair together, Suzanne sitting on Keith’s lap in a way Laura never did. Despite not thinking that Suzanne was ever right for David, I couldn’t understand Keith at this moment.
Of course, a more discerning person might ask if I really ever had.
Even now, I don’t always understand the terms of friendship. For instance, I have over 250 Facebook friends, some I’ve even known well. Just last week, though, I discovered that two good friends of mine—one no longer living in our area but home visiting for the Christmas weekend—got together for pizza at our local joint and posted their reunion on Facebook. Since they are in my circle of close friends, I see everything they post, so it was hard not to notice that I wasn’t in these pictures. For reasons I still don’t know, they didn’t alert me to their meeting. I’ve since asked about it, but have received only the lamest reply from one and from the other that it was a last minute thing.
I thought I understood the nature of such relationships, however, and yet, over and over it seems the nature of friendships change without my knowing, like with Keith. And Laura.
We didn’t see Laura for several months after their break-up, but one night at a party, we ran into her. Nilly told me later that at some point in the evening, Laura came up to her and said,
“Why don’t you ever call me?”
“Wow, what did you say?”
“Just what I felt. I shrugged, looked at her, and said, ‘What can I tell you Laura? I just haven’t.’”
Laura looked at Nilly a moment and then walked away. The last time either of us saw her, she was cavorting in our new apartment complex’s pool with a guy I had seen before, a wanna-be Keith with his same poodle-cut hair. It was like we had never known Laura even though we all said “Hi.”
As for Keith, I’m sure he and Suzanne didn’t last long, but I don’t know how long because not long after they started dating, Nilly and I moved out of the state for my first job at a liberal arts college in rural South Carolina, where I’m still teaching today. Once, sitting in my office, I became nostalgic for the friendship I thought I had. Someone had told me Keith had moved to New York and was working in the music library at NYU. It wasn’t difficult to look up that number, and so one late morning, I called. The operator put me through to Keith Spurgeon:
“Keith, it’s Terry. How are you?”
“What are you doing up there? Where are you living?”
“Uh, I’m the classical music librarian here.”
“Man! Do you like it?”
“Listen Terry, I have to go. I gotta lot of work here.”
“Ok Keith. I just wanted to catch up.”
“Yeah. OK. I’ll see you.”
He hung up just like that. I stared at the phone for a minute, and then it hit me: a strange conversation we had one day as we were walking along Clinch, heading to the Student Center for coffee.
“You know what I like about our friendship,” Keith said. “That it’s not very deep, not too involved. It doesn’t make things so heavy.”
At the time, I thought he meant that I was someone who was easy to get on with, and I appreciated that. But something was always wrong in that statement. Though we hung out together a lot during that year of 1985, Keith never considered our friendship that important. Like Laura, I was not a good match for him, but rather a placeholder, someone who would never challenge or exactly match his intellectual or artistic tastes.
For though I bought records by Coltrane and Gordon and Davis, I never sprung money for any Chadbourne.
I never tried to call Keith again, and of course he never reached out to me. It’s too bad when you misjudge a friendship, but there are worse things. Like loving the wrong woman, or never being in love in the first place.
My wife and I have seen REM at Clemson, Midnight Oil in Atlanta, and for years we ate at The Blue Nile, where our waitress always remembered us, and where we always fed each other as lovers do.
Once, we returned only to find that it closed down. We were greatly disappointed to find it gone.
Like so many other things we thought we knew so well.