Here are all four drug-induced chapters, united in one 80 page go-round. There are some changes in here but the story remains essentially unchanged.
I’m sitting in my little Zodiac inflatable, puttering through the anchorage off the town of Avalon, California, and it all looks so familiar to me – yet so far away. The sharply sloping beach is not quite a hundred feet away as I slip through the anchorage, the old casino still majestically presides over the harbor, and the rocky sea wall is as it has been all my life – boulder strewn and implacable. The water below is clear and deep blue – just as it was fifty years ago, the sandy white bottom still visible forty-three feet down, as relentlessly clear and full of promise this morning as it was in the late 60s. Nothing appears to have changed, not all that much, anyway, and even my boat looks the same. I turn and look at her reflection in the water and she hasn’t changed a bit – not as much as I have. Troubadour is my Alajuela 38, and I bought her new from the manufacturer in Newport Beach 50 years ago this year, and yes, she’s seen a few miles under her keel, true enough, but she’s been in good hands all the way. My hands, as a matter of fact. And I’ve been looking at my hands these last few days, maybe more than I should, and right now, as I putter through the anchorage off Avalon, I can see my hands have changed a lot recently, and I have to admit there are days I hardly recognize them. Still, when those moments find me I wonder what happened to me, because Troubadour looks the same. Why, I wonder? Why do I have to be the one get old? It doesn’t seem fair to me.
I remember looking at my grandfather’s hands once and wondering what all those brown spots were. Why his fingernails were kind of yellow and ridged. He had scars all over them, too, and most were from cuts he’d sewn up himself. He’d dip a needle and thread in whiskey and just sew himself up, and he didn’t think anything of it. It was what you did to stop the bleeding, so he did it and moved on to the next chore, which was what I did – more or less – over the years. Now, looking at my hand on the outboard motor’s tiller I recognized those hands for what they were. They were my hands now, in a way, but they were my grandfather’s, too, right down to the yellow ridges. Am I an echo? I always thought I was just me, but am I, really?
I remember me and Pops sat and watched the Petrified Forest one time, that movie with Bogart and Davis, and he told me about his trip west in 1919, just after the war. How there weren’t highways crossing the United States, not even through roads. He had a car, and God knows how he afforded it, but he and my grandmother made the trip west together – from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. A few cities had paved streets – paved with brick, he said – but by and large the roads that connected cities were primitive things, often little more than sandy tracks winding through desert scrub. With the hard, narrow tires that cars had in those days, the wheels settled down in the soft sand, often so deep that drive shafts were worn down by the rocks and the sand, and he had to replace two solid steel shafts between El Paso and Flagstaff. Just polished down to nothing, worn down by the miles. Took them almost three weeks to make the trip, and he admitted to me that night, once the movie was over, he should have taken the train and bought a car once he got to LA, but that wasn’t my grandfather’s idea of life. He wanted to get out there in the world, smell the road, meet people along the way and maybe have some fun and get in trouble too, because that’s what life was all about. I guess he passed that on to me, for better or worse, because in the end I bought Troubadour and sailed to those sandy, out of the way places.
I didn’t plan things that way, however. Things just kind of happened.
The way things always kind of happen. Unexpected things, the kind of people you never thought you’d run into, not in a million years. Doing things I never thought I wanted to do, going places that held no interest to me – until I got there. Life for me, before Troubadour, had been like the first thirty seconds of a roller coaster ride, the part where the ratcheting chain hauls you up that first huge incline. I was in the lead car right about then, too, looking out at the world during that little pause at the top, just before the car takes off down that first steep drop. There is, I seem to recall, this flash of anticipation up there, then a little fluttering exhilaration in your gut as you slowly roll forward – followed by a dawning awareness that life might be far more interesting elsewhere, anywhere else than on this roller coaster. Maybe I never felt that way, not in that moment before the fall, but about half way through my ride I began to develop an appreciation for smooth bicycles on warm country roads. Funny thing, though. That was my fault, not the roller-coaster’s.
Which, I think, makes Troubadour all the more ironic. Troubadour was a nonstop roller coaster ride, yet she’s an old friend now. I know her aches and pains, her ups and downs as well as I know my own – yet what makes that such an off-putting idea is she’s not flesh and bones. She’s a boat, but she’s been my friend, too. A boat that became a reflection of my life. You go places with friends. You look back at that reflection and if you’ve done it right all you see is love.
I started playing the piano in kindergarten, maybe a little before. I was pretty good too, or so people told me, for a five year old. My teacher, a crusty old man who kept a regal old Steinway grand in his music room, seemed to think I had talent, but I was always more interested in composing music, not playing. And not to make to big a deal about it, but I always hated performing in front of people. My first recital was a disaster, and that set the stage for many more over the years, and I think, in an odd way, my reaction to that first trembling moment paved the way for Troubadour. I do okay playing one on one, or even with a people looking over my shoulder, but if you put me in a venue with hundreds of people I come undone. Just can’t do it, if you know what I mean. It’s not stage fright…it’s stage catatonia. I got over it once, for a while, but you know how these things go. They come back when you least expect them, and it ain’t pleasant.
Anyway, some time in junior high a bunch of really hip kids decided to form a band. Mind you, these guys were like twelve years old and had never played an instrument in their lives, but two of them got electric guitars for Christmas and started banging out the four-chord progression of Louie-Louie, and another friend got a massive Ludwig drum set – because that’s what Ringo played, don’t you know – and they needed someone who could play bass. Well, I could. I was playing both the acoustic bass and guitar by that point, and my grandfather had a massive pipe organ in his house that I’d been playing for years, so I had that one under my belt too.
At any rate, they convinced me to join them and I guess you could say I taught them how to play their instruments over the next year. One of the kids, Pete Davis, was a soulful twelve year old who liked writing poetry and was getting decent on his drums, and we started putting music to the words in his head. Anyway, he’d share his musings with us and somehow real music started to take shape. Hey, you never know, right?
I looked back on those first compositions of ours as something really else, the wonder of coming of age condensed into two and a half minutes of pre-pubescent wailings about acne and nocturnal emissions. We were twelve, you see, yet even then sex had become the center of our existence, and we were pegged to play at our school’s Spring Dance the last weekend of our last year in junior high. We had a couple of our own pieces to play but by and large we were set to grind out a bunch of Beatles and Stones songs, with me doing double duty on bass and keyboards.
I was, of course, terrified, and now I need to mention my, well, my grandmother. Her name is Terry, and she was not quite fifteen years older than me. She was Pops’, my grandfather’s third wife. The first two died on him, but that’s neither here nor there. Pops was a producer by then, kind of a big deal in Hollywood, and Terry was not even half his age. So let’s get this out in the open right now: I had a thing for my grandmother. She was an actress, by the way, and Life Magazine called her The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. So did I. Whenever she walked into my room at home I damn near had a heart attack. Yes, I had it bad. Real bad.
Anyway, I was talking to Pops and Terry about my stage fright one night and Terry told me she did too, even when she was on a movie set. Oh yeah, Terry’s English, grew up in London, and as the Beatles and the Stones were the rage that vibe kind of rubbed off on her. So, Terry worked with me, showed me a few tricks to make the terror a little more manageable. Some of these worked better than others. C’est la vie, right?
So, not only were there several hundred people at that dance, I knew each and every one of people in that room. I had chewed my fingernails down to bleeding stumps by the time we were set to take the stage, and I found that the only way I could play was to turn my back to the dance floor – so I did. For two hours I rocked and rolled and I had not have the slightest idea if anyone else was out there, and when it was finally all over I packed my stuff and went home – and vowed I’d never do anything like that ever again.
We were, of course, invited to participate in a local ‘battle of the bands’ contest to be held in early July, and we needed two songs of our own in order to be contestants so were turned Pete’s composition into something really special while I cobbled together something generic and altogether bland for our second entry and we practiced and practiced until we were blue in the face – then it was time to set up our instruments on what was indeed a really BIG stage.
“How many people are out there?” I asked one of the promoters.
“Oh, last year we had almost two thousand, but we’ve sold five thousand tickets so far…”
My knees were knocking by the time they announced us, but I turned the organ so I faced away from the lights and we launched into Pete’s soliloquy – a soothing, polished love song that just sounded silly when five twelve year olds sang it, but the girls out there loved it and they went wild.
Then we slipped right into ‘Lucy-Goosey’ – my hastily contrived fluff piece, and we brought down the house. We won, too. The contest, and we picked up a recording contract – with Lucy on the A side and Pete’s soliloquy on the flip side. The 45 sold a half million copies before we were in high school and as I was the songwriter listed on Lucy the lions share came to me.
And that was the end of that, of course. Lots of bitter vibes because of money. Always. Yet Pete and I stayed together, he always stuck with me, through thick or thin, and I never turned my back on him, either.
I haven’t mentioned my parents because, well, they died when I was young, like three years old. An airplane crash, a jetliner taking off from Mexico City, and really, I haven’t the slightest memory of either of them. I lived with my father’s father and his second wife, and I grew up in Beverly Hills. Then she died, and I don’t want to make too big a deal about it, but death kind of defined my reality. Things didn’t last, people died – and that was that. My parents were show business types, too; he a director and she an actress of some repute, and I don’t know how to say this other than I grew up around Hollywood types, lots of famous people were always around the dinner table, so my upbringing left me with, well, a different sense of proportion. If people saw glamorous stars and western heroes, I saw sullen, moody drunks sitting by the pool out back – all fawning over Terry’s – my third grandmother’s – legs. I mention all this only to add context to the sudden fame thrust on me after Lucy-Goosey went platinum later that summer. I also mention Terry’s legs because they truly were the most fantastic things on earth, and it’s a bitch growing up lusting after your grandmother.
I, for my part, decided to concentrate on classical compositions after our band fell apart, which pissed a whole lot of people off, but I kept at it all through high school and into college, yet by that time what little fame Lucy generated had all but slipped away – and I was grateful, because I considered the piece pure garbage.
If I forget to mention it later, all musicians hate their own stuff. The more they hate it the better it sells. Go figure.
So, anyway, I went to Stanford unencumbered by all that fame baggage, and I studied composition and philosophy with no job in mind – until a friend asked me to join a group he was putting together. Once it became more widely known among those people that I had, once upon a time, penned Lucy-Goosey, well, they wanted me to join their little group.
“I always wondered what happened to you,” Deni Dalton said, and that’s how we met, Deni and I. She had this smokey voice that seemed to seethe dark sexuality, and when she looked me in the eye I felt like a banana being peeled in the monkey house. Whatever protective layers I had on that day, say that look of smug condescension I liked to slip on from time to time, she cut through like a hot scalpel.
Deni was Music wrapped in pure Sin. She was bigger than life. I was in love with her within minutes, but then again everyone who laid eyes on her fell in love. She always wore black, too, back in those early days. Black hair and black eyes, heavy black makeup – she was pure Goth before there was such a thing.
And she had kind of a black heart, too. Mercenary, I guess you’d say. Not educated, yet smart, and from a very poor family. She read people like others read books, and maybe because of her upbringing she had a thing for money. She was always looking for the angle that would lead to fame and fortune, and I think after she took one look at me she saw an irresistable opening. Turns out she knew more about me than I did.
“Your Dad still with Universal?” she asked.
“My father died when I was three.”
“Aaron Dorskin? He’s not your pops?”
“Oh, right. He’s still with Universal, ain’t he?”
“Last I heard.”
“Well, we’re looking for someone new on keys, and Luke says we should give a listen. So, I’m listening.”
We were in the living room of this run down three story house in Berkeley, and all there was in the room, besides a dozen or so people on a u-shaped purple velvet sofa, was an old upright piano – and then, wouldn’t you just know it, one of the girls on the sofa went down on the guy sitting next to her.
So…I looked at this chick for a moment and started playing to her rhythm, then Deni caught where I was and she stood and started swaying to the music coming from the girl’s mouth. I was drifting between Bartok and Dave Evans until this chick hit the short strokes, then I just let the music flow for a while, a loose, swirling flow, and Deni came to me and kissed me for a long time, before she and I played a little music of our own. But that was Deni. When she felt like sex was the key inside the moment, she played every note she knew.
And so began a very interesting time in my life. I like to think of it as my purple paisley patchouli period, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was a funky house, of that much I am certain. Channing Way was kind of an epicenter of seismic music in Berkeley for a few years back in the late sixties, and maybe Deni’s purple paisley house was ground zero. Her background was coffee house folk, kind of a dark California counterpoint to Paul Simon’s more upbeat New York vibe, and you might get that if irony is your thing. If Simon had inherited a little Gershwin, Deni had been mainlining Thelonius Monk – for years – yet she felt like she was ready for fatter, more complicated sounds. She wanted to create fat, epochal rock, anthems for a new generation already grown tired of Beatlemania. She didn’t want cool reflecting pools, she wanted steamrollers and wrecking balls. Most of all, she didn’t want to play small clubs anymore. She wanted to hit college campuses and then, maybe, if she got lucky, move on to bigger and better things, but she saw rock and roll as a doorway, an entry into something really big and bold.
To me, as a keyboardist in 1968, big and bold – and fat – meant synthesizers and mellotrons. Yes, fat is a term – usually associated with big, beefy synthesizer intros. Those two instruments, I surmised, might allow some of the more bombastic elements of classical forms to merge with the somewhat more simplistic forms of rock that seemed to be yearning for release – and like every other classically trained musician on the planet I realized Sgt Peppers had shown us the way to the door, while Pet Sounds had given us the courage to break on through to the other side. Martin and the Beatles began introducing classical motifs on Sgt Peppers, but it was their Fixing A Hole that caught fire in Deni’s mind. The Beatles married the baroque to old English choral music and it was brilliant, but it wasn’t American. The Beatles were a Jaguar XK-E: think of something restrained and elegant, gorgeous yet full of barely contained potential; what Deni wanted was a Shelby Cobra with glowing pipes, something untamed and unleashed, music that would overpower the soul and make people scream – when elation overpowered sensibility.
She had some ‘cred in the music business, but not a lot, not the kind I had, anyway – but what I did have was Pops, my grandfather. He was fairly high up on the food chain at Universal, and their MCA Records division wanted to cash in on the exploding pop/rock market that Capitol had cornered. So, we retreated into the house on Channing Way one February day and didn’t come out again until May, and only then did three of us hop in someone’s old VW Microbus and slither down the 101 to Burbank – and went to Pop’s office.
He was old by then, seriously old, but he was also sharp as a tack. We walked in and he looked at us like we’d just crawled out from under a rock, which, I have to say, wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Aaron,” he asked when he quasi-recognized me, “is that you under that hair?”
You see, by 1968 my hair was hanging down somewhere south of my knees, and George Harrison’s beard had nothing on mine. Well, his was probably cleaner.
“Hey, Pops,” I said, ‘Pops’ being my characteristic greeting. “We need a recording studio. I want to cut an album.”
I am not, you understand, one to waste time on idle chit-chat.
“Oh?” he said, with one raised eyebrow. One eyebrow meant he was listening. Two meant you needed to start running for the door.
So I tossed our demo reel on his desk, a big Tascam reel-to-reel spool, and he looked at it, then at Deni. And you have to understand this about Pops: he was only interested in her tits by this point. If she could sing, great, but she had great tits and I could see that working over in his mind – as in: she’ll look great on an album cover. He had no interest in her physically, only in the commercial appeal of Deni’s tits.
So he picked up his phone and dialed an extension.
“Lew? Aaron’s here, and he has a demo. Can I send him up now?”
So off we went, off to see the wizard. A dozen people gathered and listened to our demo and we walked out an hour later with a recording contract. We hopped in the VW and drove back up the 101 in a blinding rainstorm, got back to the purple paisley house a little after midnight – and Deni attacked me then. In a good way, if you know what I mean. We came up for air a few days later, and the really interesting thing about us is we realized we were heroin to one another. We were dangerously intoxicated when we mixed, so much so we knew we were in danger of losing ourselves, each to the other. We stepped back after that, afraid of combusion.
Yet after those two days and nights wrapped up in one another, Deni dropped the whole Black Goth thing and went in for this deep purple paisley look. Flowing silk capes of purple, and then the house began to reek of patchouli. Patchouli incense was burning 24/7, and she put patchouli oil in everything, notably the polish she used to wipe down her rosewood furniture. The scent wasn’t quite overpowering, but it came close, and the whole patchouli thing became indelibly linked to those months. I can’t not think of her when I run across that scent.
Anyway, we loaded up all our gear and ambled back to Burbank a week later, and we had several days booked to get the sound we wanted down on tape. I’ve since read books on musicians of that era, these being little more than monographs of artistic egoism run amok, and I shudder to think what would have happened to us if that had been the case. Instead, it seemed as if Deni and her mates knew this was their one big shot, and they had to get the job done this time or prepare to wait tables for the rest of their lives. We came together, Pete and I – and her friends, and the results were something else.
We ended up spending a month in the studio, yet before we were finished MCA released a single that shot up the charts into the top-10, and on the strength of that alone they booked us to play three nights at the Universal Amphitheater later that summer – and I didn’t think anything about it at the time, maybe because I was so wrapped up in the moment.
Deni was our lyricist, and she was a good one too, but she wasn’t quite what I’d have called an original. She listened to other recording artists all the time, listening for inspiration and ideas. Always looking for new ways to spin a phrase, new transitions between parts of a song – yet she couldn’t read or write music, what’s you might call notation. She had an instinctual grasp of the inherent order within a musical phrase, but she couldn’t see structure when expressed in notes and chords on a piece of paper. This wasn’t a big deal as I looked at the innate phrasing of her lyrical constructs and went from there, and as she wrote new stuff she’d come over to me and sing variations. Not a big deal, and most pop music is created that way these days, but it was a big move away from the classical paradigm – where arias are derived from the inherent structure within a passage of music.
An unknown named Elton John showed up while we were in the studio and he listened for a while then disappeared, and I dropped by one of his sessions a few days later and was blown away by his exuberance, his showmanship – even in the studio. And it hit me then, my lump on a log stage mannerism. I was not and would never be an Elton John. He was an impressionist masterpiece, and I was a Dutch still life – destined to reside on the edge of the stage, the edge of the world, my back to the action – and I knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. As soon as the lights went up I began to freeze inside, like my mind was suddenly and completely encased in brittle ice.
So, the album was released and it was a bigger hit than even Pops thought it would be. And yes, there was lots of cleavage on the front cover. Purple paisley and cleavage. My God, Deni did have canyons of cleavage. We played a few small gigs on Sunset and Hollywood, a few parties in the Hills of Beverly too, and we started mapping out our second album during that time. Then our first night at the Amphitheater came up and everything inside just kind of snapped. I couldn’t even walk out on stage for our practice session that afternoon, and for the first time what had been kind of a modest idiosyncrasy turned into a real liability. I looked at my mates looking at me and I knew they couldn’t understand…hell, I didn’t understand…but this was something that could seriously fuck up their chances of making it big.
Pops called a doc, some Beverly Hills shrink, and she came out and gave me a shot in the hip, told me to rest for a half hour, and she sat with me and we talked.
She looked like Faye Dunaway, if you know who I mean. About fifty, blond hair and seriously gorgeous. Smart? Dear God. It was like she had this ability to look inside souls, take an inventory and figure out what was wrong. Me? It was all about losing my parents when I was a kid. My dad was an actor and he had gone down to Mexico, to Acapulco, to receive some kind of award, and their plane crashed on the way back, so yeah, separation anxiety lead to more and more anxieties and Pops had had no idea. Hell, neither did I. But Terry did. Anyway, understanding did not lead to catharsis and by the time we were called on stage I was no better. The doc’s magic potion helped, but Terry was there and just seeing her helped me keep it together long enough to do the show, and while it was magic, the ovations and the wild applause, as I walked offstage I passed right out. Down like a sack of potatoes, right on the edge of the stage.
Or so I read in newspaper accounts the next morning. Despite not having diabetes the episode was ascribed to hypoglycemia and that was that. I spent all that next day working with a studio musician who would be on standby, a kind of understudy, in case I cratered that night – and of course I did.
I watched from backstage as this stranger played my music, and in fact he played better than I had, a supple fact not lost on Deni and my bandmates. I didn’t even show up for the third night’s performance, and when we returned to Berkeley the next day everyone tried to not make a big deal about it – but I knew something had changed between us. We all did, Deni most of all. I felt like damaged goods, a broken doll that not even all the king’s men could put back together, but we started writing music and pretty soon all was forgotten – if not forgiven.
We went back to Burbank a few months later and started laying down tracks when word came that we were going to tour North America in the fall and Europe the coming winter – and I started going to the shrink in Beverly Hills more often. Maybe she could help, I told my mates. Yeah, maybe, they said.
Then a funny thing happened. The shrink invited me to go sailing with some friends of hers the next morning. I accepted the invitation, too, if only because I wanted to get to know her better, and I ran out and got a haircut too. Bought some boat shoes, of all things, and some natty red sailing shorts to go with them. Oh, I looked so Beverly Hills!
The boat, a huge racing yacht that had been famous in the 30s, belonged to her husband, of course, a billionaire property developer who owned half of LA, and they had a professional crew sailing the boat so all I had to do was sit around and look interested in my boat shoes. Yet the truth of the matter was I did indeed find sailing interesting. In fact, the idea of sailing away from all my anxiety seemed very enticing. I talked to the skipper about boats and sailing for a while and I learned a lot that afternoon.
There was another couple on the boat that day, a property developer from Newport Beach who had brought his wife and daughter along. The girl looked a little younger than I, and she was studying some kind of psychology at UC Irvine. And hey, she loved our single. Her name was, of course, Jennifer. Every other girl in OC is named Jennifer, has been since the beginning of time.
She looked like one of Southern California’s home grown Hitler Youth so common to Orange County back in the day: rich, privileged, blond haired and blue eyed, yet she was sweet in a troubled kind of way – and she loved sailing. Well, I thought I might love sailing too so we had something in common, right? Anyway, we talked boats and I figured out pretty quick she knew a lot more about boats than I ever would, that she’d grown up around boats, and also that she really, really liked our single. She even had an original 45 of Lucy-Goosey, bless her heart, and we went out for a burger after we got back to the marina, then I drove her down to Newport, to her dorm at UCI, but when we got there she pointed me towards the beach and we went down to the peninsula, watched the moon fall on Catalina just before the sun decided to show up for a return engagement. She was sweet and I got into her way of talking real fast, thought it was kind of cool.
There was a boat show in Newport, she told me, usually in April or May, and she wanted to know if I’d come down and go to it with her. I said ‘sure, sounds fun’ before I knew what had happened, and we looked at one another when I dropped her off at the dorm like we were not quite sure where this was going. I wanted to kiss her, and I could tell she wanted me to, but I couldn’t – because I was afraid, and I told her so, too. I told her about seeing the shrink, about my looming performance anxiety and she seemed to understand. Anyway, I gave her my number at Pop’s house and she leaned over and kissed me once, gently, then again, not so gently, and then she told me I didn’t have anything to be worried about where she was concerned and everything kind of slipped into place after that. Right there in the car, as a matter of fact.
We finished the second album over the next few weeks then took a break, our first big tour not scheduled to begin for a month or so, and I went to Pop’s house to unwind. Everything seemed pretty much the same there, except Pops seemed to be slowing down, and suddenly, too. He said his back hurt more than it had until recently, and Terry and I talked him into going to see his doc.
And Jennifer called my first night there, said she was going to be at the marina Saturday and wanted to know if I wanted to go out on a new boat. Sure, I said, and we set a time to meet up – and after that I couldn’t think about anything other than her – until my next appointment with the shrink, anyway. Pop’s internist was in the same building as my shrink so I dropped him off for his appointment then ducked in for mine, but when I came back for him an hour later he was still inside – so I sat and waited.
And a nurse finally came out and asked for me, led me back to some forbidden inner sanctum – where I found Pops all red-eyed, an old internist handing him tissues. Prostate cancer, advanced well into the spine was the preliminary diagnosis, but biopsies would be done early Monday morning and we’d go from there. We left and he was pissed off because the same doc had told him a year ago the pain was probably related to a fall he’d taken a few years before. Maybe if he’d been more thorough he’d have a chance now, he said, because if it had moved into the spine that was it.
“What do you mean, that’s it?”
I understand my parents died when I was three, but since then no one I knew had kicked the bucket – and now, all of a sudden, the most important person in my life was telling me he was going to die, soon? That this was it? The ride was over?
I had an emotional disconnect about that time, I guess you might say. I was a little more concerned with my well being than his in that moment, a little more than afraid – for me. No, let me rephrase that. I fell apart and we held on to one another there in the lobby for way too long, then we walked over to Nate ‘n Al’s for bagels and lox. He called some of his buddies from the studio, told them to come over for a few hands of poker that night – which was code for ‘shit has hit the fan’ and we sat there watching the ice melt in our glasses of iced tea, neither of us knowing what the hell to say to one another. Terry would surely come apart at the seams tonight, he said, then this lanky gentleman walked in and came over to our booth and sat down next to me.
Jimmy Stewart, in town between shoots and an old friend of the family, looked at Pops and sighed. “Aaron, you look awful. Now tell-tell me, why-why-why all the long faces?”
So Pops lays it out there and then Jimmy is all upset, the ice in his iced tea is melting along with ours, then he finally turns and looks at me.
“Heard that album of yours. It sure isn’t Benny Goodman, is it?”
Pops broke out laughing at that. “It sure isn’t, but that lead singer of theirs sure has great gonzagas. World class, if you know what I mean.”
Stewart rolled his eyes, shook his head. “All he can think about at a time like this is tits. Aaron? You’ll never change.”
“Amen to that, brother,” Pops said. “What do you have in that sack, James? Another model airplane?”
“Yup, yup. Me ‘n Hank Fonda, you know how that goes?”
“Did you ever see his model room, Aaron?” Pops asked me.
“Yessir, been a few years, but…”
“I was building that B-52 when you were up there, wasn’t I?” Jimmy recalled. “Wingspan this big,” he said, holding his hands about a mile apart and we all laughed. He got up and patted Pops on the shoulder a minute later, told him he’d call soon, then he ambled over to a table where Gloria was already waiting and I could see the expression on her face when he told her. Small town, Beverly Hills. Good people, too.
I got up early and drove down to the marina, met Jennifer at the anointed hour and she took me down to a slip below an apartment building and hopped aboard a brand new Swan 4o. There were two other girls onboard already and they slipped the lines, let Jennifer back the boat out of the slip while they readied the sails. We sailed out of the marina after that, then turned south for Palos Verdes – and with barely enough wind to fill the sails the girls soon gave up and turned the engine on. Seems they were delivering the boat from the marina to it’s new owner down at the LA Yacht Club and I was along for the ride, but by the time we cleared the Point Vicente lighthouse we had enough wind to raise sail again and had a rip-roaring nine mile sleigh ride after that. Feeling the motion, the wind through my hair – the power within the wind – was almost a religious experience, too. I was hooked, big time.
That was difference, too, between 40 feet and 83. The smaller boat felt almost alive compared to the old J-class boat I’d sailed on the week before, and I found myself mesmerized by the brisk sensations. I didn’t know it at the time, but Jennifer studied my face that day, told me once she was reliving her earliest sailing experiences by watching my reactions that day. She was very dialed into me, I guess you could say, even then.
We turned the boat over to her new owner and drove down to Newport Beach, stopped and had an early dinner at The Crab Cooker, and after we dropped off the girls she drove me back up to the marina, and I told her about Pops then, about what my grandfather really meant to me, and she remained quiet all the while, let me ramble-on until we pulled into the lot where I’d left my car. She parked and turned to face me, leaned the side of her face on the seat and stared at me.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked. “Try to go on tour?”
“I don’t think I can do that. I need to be here now, with him.”
She nodded her head. “I think so, too. You need anyone to talk to, just call me. Any time, day or night. Got it?”
I nodded my head, then looked her in the eye. “What happens if I fall in love with you?”
“If?” she said, grinning.
“Okay. When I fall in love with you?”
“Are you sure you haven’t already?”
I can still feel that moment, even now. Like it was the most important moment of my life, those precious seconds are still right there with me, wherever I go.
“I know exactly when I fell in love with you,” I said – still looking in her eyes.
“About a minute ago. Before that I was fighting it.”
“I think you’ve been fighting it all day. I know I have.”
I smiled, felt real relief inside, then asked: “You want to go meet my Pops?”
She nodded her head. “Yeah. I think that’d be a good thing.”
So we went. She met Pops and he loved her too, which was kind of a good thing. It was the first time I’d ever come home with a girl, and the moment wasn’t lost on either of us. My grandmother, Terry, was a little coy about the whole thing, a little too reserved one minute then effusive the next, but by the time we left she’d come around too. Back then I could never quite tell what was on Terry’s mind.
“So, you’re the one?” Pops asked when he walked us to the driveway, and Jennifer didn’t know what to say just then, but I did.
“Yeah, Pops, she’s the one. You mind if we run off to Vegas and do the deed, or did you want us to do it here?”
“Let’s all go to Vegas,” he said. “I can hit the tables after, and who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky,” he added, popping my grandmother lightly on her tail-feathers.
And we all laughed at that, even my grandmother, but we weren’t fooling anyone. Not by a long shot. Life’s never as simple as it seems, especially when it’s staring you in the face.
“He’s kind of cool,” Jennifer said as we drove back to the marina. “Old school Hollywood, I guess.”
“He is that. Not many like him left in this town.”
“Thanks for letting me meet him. Even if you were joking…”
And I looked at her just then, like maybe I’d been joking, and maybe I hadn’t. And she looked at me, too.
“You were joking, weren’t you?”
“We’ve known each other a week,” I said. “Maybe it would be nuts, but I haven’t been able to think about anything but you for days.”
And when she nodded her head she looked down, didn’t say a word. There were a million unheard stories in that glance, too.
“What about you,” I asked. “Am I too late? Already spoken for?”
“I was serious about a guy in high school, and we kept dating after, even after I went to Stockton and he went to SC. We broke up six months ago, well, right before Christmas.”
“He met a girl, I guess. ‘Someone better, less complicated’ was the way he put it.”
“Jeez. That’s a nice way of putting things.”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“No one since?”
She shook her head. “It messed with my head pretty bad. We’re seeing the same shrink, you know?”
No, I didn’t, but it kind of made since now so I nodded my head. “What happened?” I asked.
“Pills. My roommate found me in time, got me to the ER. Pumped my stomach, that whole scene. I came home after that. Haven’t been back to school since, not really.”
“You going to finish your degree?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Anything else you want to do?”
“I like sailing, that’s about all though. Dad put up some money to get a sailboat maker up and running, and I’m going to start working in the marketing and sales department this summer. I guess we’ll see how that goes.”
“Sounds kind of fun. Not a lot of stress, anyway, and doing something you love.”
“What about you? You going to keep playing?”
“I don’t know, composing, anyway, and maybe working on studio tracks. We have a studio musician who’s preparing to go out on the road if I can’t handle our next concert.”
“Where’s it going to be?”
“San Francisco, at the Fillmore. Hendrix is going to be there, some Brits, too. Should be a scene.”
“You wanna come up?”
“You sure you want me to?”
“You know, we were talking about getting married a few minutes ago. Nothing’s changed, as far as I can tell, anyway.”
She looked at me again and I could see it all over her face, in her eyes. Not quite shame, but a real close cousin. Something deeper than embarrassed, anyway. Trying to kill yourself – and failing – had to be hard to deal with by yourself, but to lay it all out there like she just had? She either had guts or she wanted to see how real I was. The thing is, I wasn’t running. I think I started to really fall for her after that. I mean a deep kind of falling in love, like I wanted to take care of her. I know that seems a little off, but when I saw her vulnerabilities I wanted to be stronger so I could help her carry the load.
And I think that was a turning point for me. Seeing myself as someone strong, someone she could depend on.
Anyway, when we made it to her car we got out and walked around the marina for a while, looked at boats and talked about sailing – and I held her hand all the while. The thought I’d let go of her in a minute or two, let her drive back to Newport without me was hitting home real hard, a lot harder than I expected it would, and I stopped in front of a hotel there, turned her into my arms and I just held onto her. Maybe like forever, if you know what I mean, then I kissed her, told her that I loved her and maybe we should go get a room.
I remember those eyes of hers. Looking up at me then, so full of lingering intensity. She was so insanely gorgeous, too, probably the most beautiful girl I’d ever known, and if that asshole boyfriend hadn’t fucked her up she would have been okay – or at least I kept telling myself that over the years. And hell, who knows, maybe I believed it, too, but she was fragile after that breakdown. Always was, right up to the day she finally left us.
I drove up to Berkeley a few days later, as it was time to start rehearsing for our Fillmore gig. That ‘feeling stronger’ vibe stuck with me, too, and I felt good about going out on stage for the first time in my life. Deni picked up on the vibe, and she was ecstatic about the whole Jennifer thing, too. Rehearsals went great and I picked Jennie up the night before we were set to play, and we went down in time to listen to The Nice. There weren’t many of us trying to bring new technology onstage, but Keith Emerson was creating quite a storm on stage and everyone was hanging around in this haze of expectation, waiting for him, and Hendrix.
Hendrix was the current God du jour, but for any keyboardists watching that night, Keith Emerson was surreal. Here was someone, finally, bringing classical structure into rock, and while his rendering of Bernstein’s America was electric, what caught me was a piece called the Five Bridges Suite, which fused classical with jazz and rock. About halfway through that piece I started to look around at the crowd and found a kind of swaying trance had taken hold. People didn’t want to dance now, they had been transported somewhere else, someplace deep within Music, deeper than I’d ever thought possible. Even Jennie said “wow!” when those guys wrapped up and drifted into the crowd…
But when finally Jimi came out the place erupted, and when The Experience started in with Fire you could understand what the electricity was all about. I hung on ‘til they finished up with The Wind Cries Mary, and when I looked around the place I could feel something else passing through the crowd, something hard to put my finger on, but what struck me was the power music held over that crowd. Something awesome and huge, some force I’d never reckoned with before, and what got me right then was Emerson. He was watching the crowd too, gauging the sudden surge of empathy, and I guess like me he was lost inside the wonder of the moment.
One other thing that hit me just then, too: the amount of pot hanging in the air. From fifty feet back the air was literally a purple haze, and with the multi-colored stage lights bathing the area around Hendrix the atmosphere was otherworldly. I knew a couple of cops were working the back of the crowd, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be them in this place. After the ‘free-speech’ demonstrations across the bay over the last few months, their was another ‘something’ hanging in the air, apparent, and it weren’t purdy, if you know what I mean. And that vibe was the raw underbelly of music at the Fillmore…that something in the air. It was beyond revolution, more like anarchy, and it was growing.
Sure, a lot of the music was about ‘peace and love’ but there was an awful lot of anger in the air; even so there was this Hell’s Angels vibe going around, too, an undercurrent of outlaw malevolence that felt rooted in the desire to burn everything down to the ground. That was San Francisco then and I suspect it’s always been that way. Like some people working the fringes wanted to create something new, but to me it felt like this Fillmore fringe didn’t really care who got burned along the way. So, yeah, I think there was real anarchy in this group, like this new fringe wanted their parent’s world to dissolve within the purple haze hanging over that crowd inside the Fillmore, all emotion rooted in infantile rebellion, like the tantrums of spoiled children.
Yet sometimes children are right, too.
That was in the air, too. Even the music. Our parent’s forms and structures, subverted and inverted, creating something new, anarchic and inclusive. Like the Beatles opened the doors to polite society and now the riffraff was rushing in – burning babies in Electric Ladyland. Music was, right before our eyes, becoming more political than it had in a hundred years, when Wagner politicized opera in post-Napoleonic Europe. If you think that’s trivial stuff, just consider for a moment that Marx grew out of that music, and so did Darwin.
So yeah, something was stirring in the underbelly of that crowd. Something big and noisy, and maybe ugly, too.
We were the first gig of the night, so we set up early and I looked around the place while I helped hook up the Moog and Mellotron. The air clear now, the room didn’t look all that big, or like a place full of wild magic. Just a room, I thought, not unlike the other gigs around this city, yet I had felt those forces the night before. Emerson had too. We talked after Hendrix left, talked about the vibe we’d seen and felt, and we talked in epochal terms about music shape-shifting to the needs of the moment. About the politics of music. We talked Nixon and Vietnam and John Wayne and about the image of a girl who had put a flower down the barrel of a National Guardsman’s rifle. Everything was linked, he said, but the links weren’t easy to see – not yet, anyway. Music had to become the fabric that joined all these disparate factions, and musicians had to claim their place as leaders of this movement. Heady stuff, and even Jenn seemed caught up in the moment. Emerson was a philosopher-king, if ever there was one.
Yet standing up there on that stage looking out over that empty room it was hard to see music as anything other than a diversion. Maybe we were the sideshow to the real action. I’d just read Jerry Rubin’s ‘Do It!’ – a real Bay Area anarchist’s manifesto – and I wondered: could music take on the weight of so much revolutionary zeal, shoulder that burden? Or would music fragment the way society seemed to be fragmenting?
Even when I worked with Deni it was there – this impulse to fly apart, to head off in uncharted new directions, and there wasn’t some unseen political hand pushing us towards a grand unified theory of musicians leading a movement. Most of the kids on stage were just that: they liked to play the guitar or the keys, and egos got big under that tent. We got off on making music together, yet I can’t recall ever sitting around and saying “Wow, did you see those riots up on campus today! We got to write about that!”
Yeah, but there was one anthem out there that contradicts all that vibe, and I loved it. For What It’s Worth, by the Buffalo Springfield – and maybe that’s the vibe Emerson was channeling that night in the purple haze – but the idea hit me then that I had always seen music as a reflection of events, not a means to change things, but maybe it could be both and I’d never really seen it as such – and I had an idea.
I hadn’t played Lucy-Goosey in years. The music had dissolved into that early Beatles-like haze of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, Yeah-Yeah-Yeah, but it was still there, buried somewhere in our collective unconscious – so what if we…
Deni was kind of entranced by the whole thing, too, and she came up with a few bridges to make the pop refrains relevant once again. Lucy was going to go from bubble-gum chewing sycophant to radical anarchist on stage that night, and the whole thing was taking shape in a burst of creativity that had come out of nowhere, man.
When the lights went down a slide was projected on the wall behind the stage, an image of that girl sticking a daisy down the barrel of the national guardsman’s rifle, and I walked out and got behind the keyboards – then turned and looked at Jennifer standing in the shadows backstage and I smiled, then turned to face the sea of faces and raised my fist, then the room went black – with just a small spot on me, and that image of the girl hanging back there behind the purple haze.
I started with the simplest piano refrains from Lucy-Goosey and the sea of faces went silent as quiet expectation replaced hyped anticipation, and my piano was almost in chopsticks mode: simple notes even a child could play, awakening memory. Our lead guitar stepped out and another spot hit him, and he started echoing my simplistic melody. Deni came out next and the crowd erupted, then as quickly shut down as she started into an even simpler, quieter version of my original lyric, and she turned to a small harp and echoed my notes as the lights faded, leaving only the image of the girl with the daisy – which soon faded to black as my piano grew softer, then silent. In the darkness the rest of the band came out and when the lights flared we turned Lucy into a molotov cocktail throwing radical with what I’d say presaged a grungy-heavy metal infused sound – music that no one in the audience had heard before – and the surge of energy was cataclysmic. I kept the simple piano melody going, but that was echoed by soaring, dark chords on the Mellotron, and with Deni’s inverted lyrics Lucy’s transformation was complete.
And I felt that transformation in my soul, too, like I’d just grown up. The insecure teenager died out there that night, and when we walked offstage an hour later I walked into Jennifer’s arms and held on tight, because I knew the ride ahead was about to get real bumpy.
Pops was a lot sicker than he let on, and he kept everything wrapped up and put away, out of sight. Every time I called he was ‘fine, doing great’ – and Terry, my ‘grandmother’ went along with his charades, and it worked – ‘til we came to LA to play several concerts around town. I went home after our first night and when I saw him I burst out crying. I couldn’t help it.
“Do I look that bad?” he asked.
He looked like an orange scarecrow, only worse.
“The color,” he said, “is from liver failure. I kind of like it, too. Like a walking traffic sign, don’t you think? When I walk out of the doctor’s office everyone stops and stares.”
I felt sick, too, just looking at him, and then Terry told me he had maybe a month or two left, and I kind of fractured when I heard that. Like I didn’t know what to think. Pops was my last link to an almost invisible past, and without him I would be well and truly alone. There weren’t any brothers or sisters or aunts and uncles, there was just me and Pops. I was going to be, if I remained alone and childless, the last of the line.
And that was a big question hanging in the air between us.
“What’s with Jennifer?” he wanted to know.
“We’re good,” I said, but there was something else hanging in the air. That whole fragile thing. She was depressed, and when she started going down that hole she turned to dolls to pick her back up. Dolls, as in The Valley of The. Pills, in other words, and here I need to digress a little. I didn’t do pills. I didn’t smoke – anything. I didn’t drink much, because I didn’t like the whole idea of losing control. I know, like the idea we have some kind of control is an almost comic idea, but the point is we do have the ability to control some things, and losing what little I had was to me a Very Bad Thing. I tripped all I wanted when I disappeared inside my music, but I could come out of it intact and lucid. I had seen Deni disappear down the LSD rabbit hole and not come out for days, and that scared the shit out of me. We’d been through two lead guitarists over the course of a year simply because one drug or another had taken them someplace they just couldn’t break free of, and I wasn’t going there.
So when I saw Jennifer headed down the same road I told her it worried me, and she told me to fuck off. So I did. I put her on a plane back to her father and told him what was going down, and what I heard back from him wasn’t worth mentioning, because he’d thought he was done with her and wasn’t happy to have her back under his roof.
I started spending more and more time in LA, spending as much time with Pops as I could, and my understudy started filling in more often when Pops started the terminal decline. I decided to go on to our next few gigs and was in Cleveland when Terry called me, told me to come home, and it was about five hours before the show that night when I called Deni and told her. She came to my hotel room and we talked, and she told me to take my time, that they’d manage without me and I held her for the longest time. We’d been together as a group for more than two years by then, and I realized she was about the closest thing to family I’d have left – and I told her so.
“I never wanted you to be my brother, Aaron,” she told me. “All I know is we work well together, like I always imagined a husband would be, ya know?”
“That day, you remember?”
“Yeah. Love heroin. I’ll never forget. I’ve never loved anyone like I loved you,” she sighed, and then she was crying. “God, I don’t want you to go. Something’s going to happen to you back there. Something fuckin’ big’s coming, and I feel like it’s going to crush you, man.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without him, Den. I’m scared, and with Jenn gone? I don’t know, man, I don’t know…”
“I’m here. Don’t you forget that.” She looked at me and we kissed, I mean like the last time we kissed, and I was full of these bizarre electric charges flickering on and off like lightning all over my skin, then she looked at me again. “I love you, and I will forever” she sighed, then we kissed again, and this time we were hovering beyond the abyss, ready to fall into bed, but she pulled back and ran from the room.
I got my bags together and made it out to the airport in time to catch a one-stop to LAX, and made it to the house a little after midnight. I went to Pop’s room and we sat and got caught up while Terry left to put on tea, but she came back in a few minutes later, her eyes full of grief. She turned on the TV and there were news reports of an airplane crash, a flight from Cleveland to Buffalo, and a hundred and fifteen people, including all members of the group Electric Karma, were feared dead.
I blinked, recoiled from the very idea Deni and all my mates were gone, that the sum total of our existence had been wiped from the slate in the blink of an eye, but the pictures on the screen told a very different story. A midair collision about a mile out over Lake Erie, and the 707 had burst into flames and fluttered down to the wavetops, then slipped beneath black water.
Pops died the next day.
Jennifer thought I died that night and she came undone. Razor blades this time, and she’d meant to take herself out, no doubt about it. By the time I called their house the next morning the damage was done, though I didn’t find out for a few more hours. When I talked to her father later that day he sounded relieved and furious, and I told him I’d be down as soon I could. He said he understood and we left it at that, and Pops slipped into a morphine induced coma later that afternoon. We didn’t say goodbye, but when I held his hand I could feel him respond to my words. When I told him he meant the world to me, and that I’d miss him most of all he squeezed my hand, and I could hear him talking to me. All the talks we’d had over the years were still right there, and Terry was with me, holding on to me, when he slipped away.
She was English, my Terry. Had had a good run in Hollywood after the war, made a half dozen romantic comedies with the likes of Cary Grant and, yes, Jimmy Stewart, so when Pops moved on it was a big deal in Hollywood circles, yet the death of my bandmates cast a long shadow over the whole affair. Everyone knew about Pops and me, how tight we were, yet Terry was the big surprise – to me. I’d never really appreciated how close they were, but one look at her and you knew it wasn’t an act. She stopped eating for a month, literally, and wasted away to nothing – and then I had to admit I really felt something for the woman. She wasn’t just Pop’s third wife: she, too, became the one last link I had to him, one I’d never even realized existed, and all of a sudden I was scared she might leave me too.
And let’s not forget Jennifer, lying, in restraints, in a psychiatric hospital tucked deep inside the hills above Laguna Beach. I started driving down to Laguna every other day, then every morning, and I spent hours with Jennifer then drove back up to Beverly Hills, back to Pop’s house, where I tried to pull Terry out of her funk.
About three weeks into this routine I decided to take Terry with me down to Laguna, to try to get Terry to see what the real contours of falling into depression looked like, and it worked. That day marked a big turnaround for all of us, because she reached out to Jenn and they connected.
Like a lot of people around that time, I’d recently seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to me that time felt a lot like one of the key passages in the movie. When Hal goes bonkers and cuts Frank adrift, and Dave goes after his tumbling body in the pod – helmet-less. I wasn’t sure if I felt more like Dave, or Frank, but I knew everything was tumbling out of control – yet I was the only one who could set things straight.
Like Pops had set me straight after my parents died, I knew it was my turn at the controls, and I didn’t want to let either Pops or my old man down. Hell, by this point I didn’t want to let Jennifer’s father down. Whatever was wrong with Jenn, I saw then that her old man was probably behind a lot of it – so I’d in effect sent her back into the snake pit.
Nope. Not again. When you tell someone that you love them, you don’t do that. It’s a simple proposition, really. Either you mean what you say or what you say is meaningless, and now I took that to heart.
I loved Jenn. Simple as that. And I loved Terry, too. Simple as that.
So, let me tell you a little more about Terry.
She met Pops when he was in his late sixties. They got married when she was thirty three. She was forty four now, and every bit the Hollywood starlet she had been just a few years ago, and in the aftermath of her decision to rejoin the living she decided she was either going to move back to London and take up work on the stage, or make another movie. Maybe a bunch of movies.
And she wanted to know how I felt about her moving back to London. Specifically, did I want to her remain in LA, remain a part of my life, or did I want her to move on.
Mind you, I had just turned twenty seven so I wasn’t exactly a babe in the woods, and I’d never once considered her my grandmother. She came into my life when I was sixteen, when she was considered one of the most desirable women in the world. Let’s just say I’d spent a few sleepless nights over her and leave it at that, and I think you’ll grasp the contours of my own little dilemma.
So, I told her ‘Hell no!’ I didn’t want her to move on. I told her she was an important part of my life with Pops, and that she would always be important to me. The problem I didn’t quite wrap my head around is she didn’t see it that way. She’d spend ten plus years married to a man who hadn’t been able to perform his marital duties for, well, a long time, and she was just entering her prime. The biggest part of the problem was the simplest, most elemental part, too. I still found her attractive, devastatingly so.
There was a part coming up, just being cast, where she’d get prime billing next to some very big names, and she’d gone to the audition dressed to kill. When she came back she was elated; she’d gotten the part and shooting began, in France, in three weeks. She wanted to celebrate and so we went down to The Bistro – where her landing the part was all the buzz. Everyone came by to congratulate her – and offer condolences – and everyone looked at me like ‘who the devil are you.’
Why, I’m her grandson – didn’t you know?
What followed was three of the most regretfully confusing weeks of my life, and I’ll spare you the details. Sex was not involved, thankfully – or regrettably, depending on your point of view – but the whole thing was an emotional hurricane that left me drained. And Jenn began to pick up on the vibe, too.
“Are you sleeping with her?” she asked me one morning after I’d just walked into her room.
“What? With who?”
And I guess the way the word ‘no’ came out implied an air of finality, because she never brought it up again. And, a few weeks after Terry left for Avignon, Jennifer moved in with me, into Pop’s house.
Because he’d left it to me. He’d left everything to me, a not insubstantial sum of money, too. Then Electric Karma’s lawyers told me that as I was the only surviving band member, and there was no one higher up on the food chain in their world, all our royalties were now mine. In perpetuity. In other words, I was filthy rich, and all I’d done was write a few songs and nearly shit my pants in stage-fright a couple of times.
Herb Alpert was, literally, my next door neighbor and I talked him into a tour of the recording studio he’d just finished in his house and I decided then and there I was going to do the same thing, and a few weeks later architects and contractors were finalizing plans while contractors swarmed, when Jenn decided we needed to buy a sailboat.
So we went down to the Newport Beach Boat Show and we looked at one yacht after another…Challengers and NorthStars and DownEasts were a few of the names that stood out, but in the end I put money down on a Swan 41, a new Sparkman & Stephens design that had not even been officially launched yet, and wouldn’t, as it turned out, for three more years – which left us without a boat for the foreseeable future.
But there was a new company just starting up in Newport, called Westsail, and they had a 32 at the show that really struck a chord with me – and I bought her, right then and there, and after the show Jenn and I sailed her down to Little Balboa Island, to the dock in front of her father’s house. Pretty soon we were driving down there almost every day, taking Soliloquy out for a sail. We started hopping over to Catalina, dropping our anchor off the casino and snorkeling for so long our skin started to look like mottled white prunes.
Sailing kept me away from the house, and the construction project, but when that work wrapped I went to work on another project. I had all our master tapes delivered to the house and I got to work re-mastering the original cuts, adding some keyboard tracks I’d always wanted, then I took them over to MCA for a listen. They reissued both our albums, and I put together a gratuitous “Best Of Retrospective” just for good measure and before you could say ‘Money in the bank’ I’d banked so much money it was obscene.
So, I had a house in Beverly Hills, at least one sailboat in Newport Beach, more than ten million in banks everywhere from California to the Cayman Islands and a seriously crazy girlfriend who had an affinity for razor blades – and boats.
And with all my work done in the recording studio – it took all of six weeks, too – I was now out of things to do.
Ah, Terry. What about her, you ask?
Well, she had more money than God before she married Pops so that was never an issue, and I was soon reading about a secret marriage to her co-star in this new film, so presto, problem solved.
Yet within a week I was bored out of my mind.
“What about forming a new group?” Jenn asked.
And all I could see was Deni in that hotel room, telling me that she loved me, and that she always would.
“You know…I don’t think so. I can record an album myself if I really want to. I can play all the instruments, do everything but sing, and if I get the urge I’ll get someone to lay down a vocal track and do the rest on my own.”
She frowned, shook her head. “That’s not the point. Working with musicians on a common goal, that’s what you need right now.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Okay. What do you think about sailing to Hawaii?”
“What? You and me?”
“That sounds fuckin’ bogus, man!”
Keep in mind, in 1972 ‘bogus’ meant something similar to ‘awesome’ these days. ‘Bogus,’ by the way, replaced ‘bitchin’ in the California lexicon, and ‘bitchin’ was a close cousin of ‘far out’ and ‘groovy.’ We clear now, Dude?
I had a million questions, the first being ‘could we do the trip on Soliloquy?’
“Fuck, yes. She was made for this kind of trip.”
“Oh?” Keep in mind about all I knew concerning sailboats was that the pointy end was supposed to go forward. Next, consider that Soliloquy had two pointy ends, so I was already seriously confused.
“Yeah, we could hit Hawaii, then head south for Tahiti.”
I’d heard of Tahiti, of course. Once. I think.
“Sure. What do you think? Wanna go for it?”
So, my suicidal girlfriend wanted to get me on a 32 foot long sailboat a thousand miles from the nearest land. To what end, I wondered?
“How long would it take to get to Hawaii?” I wanted to know.
“Depending on the wind, two to three weeks.”
“Weeks? Not months?”
“Yachts sailing in the Transpac Race do it in eight days. It’s not that big a deal.”
“Have you done it?”
Of course she had.
“But this would be just you and me, no pressure, no finish lines. We could really get to know one another, I guess.”
“Best time is June and July.”
“So…a month or two from now?”
“Would you like to do this?”
“More than anything in the world.”
“Well, maybe we’d better get to work. My guess is Soliloquy isn’t geared up for this kind of thing.”
She looked at me and grinned. “I already have.”
“Ah.” Of course she had.
And so the worm turned.
I never considered myself a sailor. Never, as in ‘not once.’ I’d never been on a sailboat until the day my shrink invited me out on her husband’s J-boat, the day I met Jennifer, and yet I was hooked from that first sail onward. If you’ve ever looked at an eagle or a seagull and wondered what it’s like to bank free and easy on a breeze, well, sailing’s about as close as you’ll get in this life – and unless you happen to believe in reincarnation and hope to wind up as a bird in your next, that’s the end of that. Bottom line: after that day I began to consider myself a sailor – and I know that sounds ridiculous – until you consider sailing is a state of mind, not simply a reflection of one’s experience.
At that point sailing was, for me, heading out the Newport jetty around ten in the morning and dropping anchor off Avalon 5-6 hours later. Soliloquy was a heavily built, very sound little ship and weather was never a factor; in forty knots with six to ten foot seas she just powered through the channel with kind of a ‘ho-hum’ feel, like – you’ll need to throw some heavier shit my way to make me sweat. She imparted a confident feel in bad weather, something I came to appreciate later that summer, but something I was, generally speaking, clueless about those first few months sailing with Jenn.
No GPS back in the day, too. Navigation was old school, and I bought a Plath sextant, a German made beauty, and Jenn taught me to use it so we shared navigation duties. I’d always been strong in math, and I guess that’s what carried me through music into composition, so sight reduction tables and the spherical trigonometry involved in celestial navigation wasn’t a stretch. Still, the first time we motored from Avalon to Newport in a pea-soup fog – and nailed it – I was proud of Jenn for being such an accomplished navigator – and teacher.
Anyway, we stocked the boat with provisions, including everything we’d need to bake bread at sea, and a few other necessities, like a life raft and a shitload of rum – because sailors only drink rum, right? – and I went to my favorite guitar dealer in Hollywood and picked up an small backpacker’s guitar, an acoustic beauty made in Vermont, and so equipped we were good to go.
We left Newport on the first of June, 1972, and we sailed to Avalon and baked bread that evening, and when the sun came up the next morning we pulled in the anchor and stowed it aft, then, once we cleared the southeast end of Catalina, we set a course of 260 degrees and settled in for the duration. Call it twenty-five hundred miles at an average of 125 miles per day, and though we racked off 150 most days, we had a few under a hundred, too. The stove and oven were propane, most lighting came from oil lamps, and we had an icebox – not refrigeration – so we went about a week with things like fresh meat and milk then switched over to canned goods and Parmalat milk for the next two. And the thing is, I found I just didn’t care. We figured out how to make things we liked using the things we had on hand, and we made rice and homemade curries that were something else. And then you have to factor in the sunsets out there…a million miles from nowhere. Sitting in the cockpit with the aroma of freshly baked yeast bread coming out of the galley, while I played something new on the guitar and as the sky went from yellow to orange to purple…well…yeah, it was all kind of like magic.
One day the seas went flat, turned to an endless mirror, and the only ‘things’ we saw all that day were the fins of an occasional blue shark or United DC-8s overhead on their way to or from Honolulu, and I’d never felt so utterly at peace in all my life. We’d bought what we’d need to rig a cockpit awning so we did that day, if only to keep from being roasted alive under the sun, and I think we started in on each other by mid-morning, and kept at it through sunset. Like, literally, nonstop sex – for fifteen hours – and it was one of the most surreal days I’ve ever experienced. Pure sex, cut off from everything else – not-one-other-distraction. Just intent, focused physicality – one soul focused on another.
I didn’t know Jennifer, not really, not before those hours, and I’m not sure she knew herself all that well, either, but we never looked at one another the same way after that. We were reduced to pure soul out there, and not one false, pretentious emotion guided us. Soliloquy was hanging in that water, no wind stirred the sea and we’d drop a cedar bucket into the crystalline water and wash ourselves down from time to time, but other than that the day melted away – leaving pure love in it’s wake.
And that night the wind picked up, our speed too, then the wind really started blowing, the seas building and we sailed for three days under a double-reefed main and staysail, the steering handled by the Monitor wind-vane self-steering rig Jenn had installed by the factory. And still Soliloquy just powered through the seas, never once did we doubt her ability to carry us safely onward.
And a few windy days later the trip was over.
Jenn’s father had shown up a few days before our expected arrival and he’d secured a berth at Kewalo Basin, near the city center, and it turned out he was as excited as we were about the trip. The fact that it had turned out so peculiarly uneventful was icing on the cake…and because I think he had it fixed firmly in mind that the crossing would be something like making it to the summit of Everest he’d never considered making such a trip. Now he was on fire to do it, and was itching to make the trip back to California.
I wasn’t, however, not with him, and not on a 32 foot sailboat.
Yet Jennifer was. She thought it would be a good time for she and her father to mend some fences, and wanted me to come along. As referee, perhaps?
And again, I didn’t want to be a part of that whole thing, and I let her know it in no uncertain terms. So, she told me to fly back, that she and her father would bring Soliloquy home to Newport.
Fine, says I, and I exit, stage right, on one of those United DC-8s we’d watched arcing across the sky. The thing is, there’s no easy way back from Hawaii to Southern California. Wind and currents make it much more doable if you arc north towards British Columbia, and then ride the current south past the Golden Gate to LA. It’s a much longer trip, and it takes a lot longer – as long as 4-5 weeks. Another drawback? You have to go much farther north, well into colder, arctic influenced waters where both storms and fog are the routine, so the trip is tough. More like the Everest expedition Jenn’s father didn’t want to experience, as a matter of fact.
So, a few days later I packed a bag and went to the airport. By myself. I flew to LA and took a taxi home, and like that it was over. The trip, our sudden affinity for each other – over and done with, like the whole thing had been a dream. Or a nightmare. It was like this thing she had going on with her father was a toxic, manic depressive beast where she had to convince herself she had to put things right, and fixing that busted relationship was a much higher priority than her relationship with me.
Jerry Garcia wanted me to help out on an album so I flew up north a few days after I got back, and we worked in the studio for almost a month, and by the time I left I had it in my head to do a solo album. Those sunsets came back to me as I dreamed music, playing that little backpackers guitar while Jenn baked bread down below, that sun-baked idyll, the buckets of seawater washing away our sins. I spent two weeks down in my basement studio laying down the tracks for just one song, and when I finished I carried it over to MCA and everyone who listened to it said it was the best thing I’d ever done. Could I carry through, create an album out of the experience?
Hell yes, I said.
And when I got home there was a message on my machine, from Jenn, in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. She and her father had had their gigantic falling out and he’d left her there; could I call her at the marina? Please?
I called the number she left on the machine and some dockmaster ran down to Soliloquy to fetch her while my fingers drummed away on the kitchen counter, and when she finally got to the phone she was breathless and in tears.
The whole trip had been a nightmare, she sobbed.
Was I surprised? No. As in, Hell No.
And when would she learn? How many more times would she let that mean-spirited asshole tear her apart. How many times would she run home and start the whole process all over again? What was I missing?
“What do you want, Jenn?”
“Could you fly up, help me bring Soliloquy back to LA?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. What happens next?”
“We get on with our life. Together.”
“Really? Until the next time you need to run home to Daddy?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you two were meant for each other. Maybe I’m just getting in the way, ya know?”
“Aaron…no. It’s not that way and you know it.”
“All I know is what I see.”
“Is that what you see?”
She hung up on me.
The dockmaster called me at six the next morning. Jenn, it turned out, had found some razor blades.
I was up there by late morning, and her psychiatrists at the hospital were convinced this attempt had been a classic ‘cry for help,’ that her cuts hadn’t been deep enough to damage the tendons. But there was another complicating factor.
Yup. Pregnant. Timing worked out about right, too. Our sunbaked idyll had been more than productive musically. And now she wanted to abort the fetus. There was no point, she’d told her docs. She’d destroyed all her chances for happiness, just like she always did, so why bring a kid into that world? Why not just kill everything about us? Take care of business once and for all time.
Maybe I was beyond caring that day, but it was beginning to feel like she was using suicide as a weapon to hurt everyone around her. Me, certainly, but her mother and father, too, and now she was going to carry that to the next logical step, in her world, anyway. Kill the truly blameless, and I was stunned. Too stunned for words.
When I went in to see her I told her as much, too, and that scene devolved into a big fight. Kill that kid, I said, and you’ll never see me again. Simple as that. I left the hospital and went down to the marina, listed the sailboat with a broker and flew back to LA that evening.
Yup. Cold. Heartless. And tired of going round and round on her psychotic merry-go-round.
Her docs called me two days later and said she’d opted to have the abortion. It was done, they’d tried to stop her but she left and had it done elsewhere.
And so was I. Done, I mean.
With her, anyway.
Not with sailing, as it turned out. Not by a long shot.
There were a couple of guys down in Costa Mesa working on a new 38 footer, and I drove down to see them, and the boat they were working on. They called it the Alajuela, named after a city in Costa Rica, and work was well underway on their second hull when I showed up on their doorstep. By the time I left later that afternoon I’d bought the next available boat, and would have her in a little less than a year, so I went home and retreated to the studio.
Jenn, of course, started calling as soon as she got back to Newport.
I, of course, changed my number.
She started coming up to the house.
I asked her to leave, and never return. After the third return I called my lawyer, had her serve Jenn with a restraining order – and out came the razor blades. I heard that anecdotally, of course. Her father didn’t call me. He called my lawyer, who told me. Another near miss, of course, but this time they put her away for a couple of years and in the end I didn’t see her for almost ten years.
She made her way into my music, however. The love I felt that day for her was as real as it ever was, and that was hard to reconcile. As hard as it was to reconcile the kid she so carelessly killed.
I wrapped up the album about a month before Troubadour launched, and the studio had released Idyll as a single a few months before. Well received, too, but not like Electric Karma’s albums, so when the new album shot up the charts two weeks after release I was as surprised as I was happy.
But I wasn’t into it anymore. I had moved on, was already planning for my life with Troubadour. Everything about her was planned for one thing, and one thing only. I was going to take her around the world, and I’d probably be going solo, too.
Refrigeration was built in, roller furling headsails too. A more robust self-steering vane was a must, and light air sails a must, too. I wanted teak decks again, and they relented, laid them for me, and by the time Troubadour hit Newport Harbor she was mine, purpose built and ready to roll. I moved her to a friend’s slip at the Balboa Bay Club and fitted her out, packed her to the gills – in less than a week, then I went home for a few days – to say goodbye.
I decided to rent Pop’s house to a friend of mine, a musician, and in the end left the house in the care of my lawyer. I drove down to Newport, handed my car over to the guys at the boatyard and in the middle of a foggy March night I cast off her lines and slipped out the jetty, pointed her bow to the southwest – bound for the Marquesas.
The first morning out, sitting on a windless sea maybe thirty miles north of La Jolla, I watched the stars and took inventory of my life. There was nothing else to do, you see. In my rush to leave I realized I’d not put a single book on board, and the only music I had on board, other that my little guitar, came from a shortwave radio. Only then did I realize I’d have to stop in San Diego to fix these nagging omissions, or turn around and return to Newport – something I really did not want to do.
When Troubadour and I cast our lines off the night before, when we motored past Lido Isle, then Harbor and Linda Islands, then, finally, Little Balboa Island, I couldn’t help but think of Jenn.
Jenn, locked away in her madness.
Jenn – and her razor blades.
And when I passed her father’s house I had seen him standing in his living room looking at me as I passed.
Did he know Troubadour was mine? Did he realize who was passing by just in front of his house? Did he understand his role in our little drama? In my little corner of the universe he was my Nixon, I a kind of McGovern by proxy. He hated me not least of all because I’d voted for McGovern, while he was a staunch Nixonian, and I’d liked to chide him about Watergate and all that told us about modern Republicans. He’d counter with endless jibes about Democrats being socialists, or worse, while I referred to Goldwater Republicans, like him, as fascist John Birchers. Which he was. When he told me once he thought the free speech protestors at Berkeley should have been rounded up and shot, and that Edwin Meese had privately agreed with him, I saw a smug pride in the man’s eyes that haunted me for years. He was a Nazi and didn’t even seem to realize, or even care what that meant.
Jenn, of course, struggled with the dichotomy presented to her. She loved her father but the longer she remained in school, the longer she studied philosophy the more she understood what her father really was. And pretty soon her father realized he was spending his money to turn his daughter against his own ideals, and I think that set up the final conflict between them. Rather that let her grow, I think he began to undermine her – at first in intellectual arguments, and then, when that didn’t work, through emotional attacks.
Jenn, I think, fell into that trap. And it was a trap. There was no way to win, for her, anyway, and the only way he could win was to destroy her. And he did, but you’d have to be sick to call that a victory – by any measure. I’ve thought about them over the years and saw in their struggle nothing less than the struggle between generations that flared in the 60s. The results were as debilitating for all of us.
About halfway through that first night out of Newport Beach I realized I couldn’t break free of all this toxicity by myself. I needed other people around me in this endeavor, and I’d need to find those voices in books, and in music. I’d need to be able to pull into a new anchorage and get ashore, find local music and listen, really listen to voices of anger and love, of resistance and submission. Yet if this trip turned into a series of angry flights the time would be pointlessly spent. If, on the other hand, I tuned in and really listened with my musician’s heart there was a chance I could learn something valuable, and quite possibly share what I learned with people who might listen. Maybe that was ego speaking, but isn’t all artistic creation an act of ego?
The wind fell away then the sea took a deep sigh and was still, leaving a black mirror alive with dancing starlight. We, Troubadour and I, drifted by a massive kelp bed and I saw a sea lion poke it’s head out of the tangled mass of starlight and stare at me as we drifted by. I wanted to dive in and play with it, to live in it’s world for a minute or two, understand what concerned him or her as it went about it’s business in the darkness. Find dinner, I reckoned, without becoming something bigger’s dinner. Elemental exigencies. Kill or be killed. That was life, wasn’t it? That’s what civilization had tried to tame. All our laws, all our frail moralities…those things kept nature away, because nature, true nature, has always been all about the most basic kind of survival. Find food and keep from being killed in the process, live long enough to procreate then get out of the way as the next generation comes along.
That seal was hiding in the kelp because something bigger than it was out there in the darkness, circling, waiting for the opportunity to sprint in and eat him. Just like me, I thought. Out here on Troubadour, running, hiding, trying to turn this into a noble mission to enlighten civilization while I ran from Jenn and her razor blades. While I tried to hide from images of Deni as she fluttered down to the dark embrace of Lake Erie.
It’s funny, the things that run through your mind in the last minutes of darkness, just before the sun rises, even a few miles offshore. You can see houses on bluffs above beaches, sleeping people just coming to the sun while you look at the processes of civilization from afar. When you cut the cord and sail away you begin to distance yourself from all those routines, from all those laws and moral constructs that define your shoreside existence. When you sail along the elemental periphery you really feel that ‘apartness.’ You feel it in your bones, like you’ve set yourself adrift and whatever purpose exists may or may not be revealed to you. In the end, you’re just along for the ride.
And then I really realized this was ‘my first time’ out on the water – by myself.
And I didn’t like this being alone thing.
So I turned on the motor and advanced the throttle, made for the entrance channel to San Diego harbor. By mid-morning I was tied up on Shelter Island; a half hour later I was eating eggs Benedict on a deck overlooking the water, so deep inside the gut of civilization it made me giddy. I walked to a yard after brunch and asked about radios, maybe one with a cassette deck? No problem, they told me. They could have it in by evening.
That, too, is civilization. Ask and ye shall receive. Just hand over the gold and run to the bookstore. We’ll take care of the details while you go spend some more money.
So…I went to all the bookstores I could in five hours, came back to Troubadour with piles of books and tapes, and I stowed them while workmen rounded out the radio installation, then I went back out for dinner, and I made my way down to an upscale steak place a few hundred yards away.
“So, what could I get you to drink?” my cheery waitress asked.
“Something strong, something with rum.”
“How about a Mai-Tai,” she said. As long as it’s strong, says I. “Not some watered down girly drink.”
She looked at my shorts and boat shoes then.
“Coming, or going?” she asked.
“You just coming in from a trip, or about to head out?”
“A little of both,” I said, then I explained.
“Where’s your boat?”
“Right down there,” I pointed, and I could indeed just see Troubadour’s mast jutting up across the way, “the one with the blue hull.”
“Troubadour?” she asked. “I was looking at her earlier. She looks sweet.”
“I’d love to just sail away someday.”
“And where would you go?”
She put her hands over her eyes and pointed in some random direction: “That way!” she said, grinning, and I laughed with her before she took off and brought my medicinal strength rum and some bread. After she took my order, she pointed me in the direction of a truly colossal salad bar and disappeared, but a minute later she dropped by again.
“So, where are you headed?” she asked.
“When you leavin’?”
“In the morning.”
“Want some company?” she joked.
“Have a passport?” I joked right back at her.
“Yes.” A little more serious this time. A little more eye contact.
“Maybe you ought to drop by after you get off tonight.” I watched her reaction then.
“Okay,” she said, parrying my thrust.
Surreal? Yes, I know.
Random, almost to the point of silliness? Oh yeah.
Ah, but her name was Jennifer. Of course. It had to be.
Jennifer – of Appleton, Wisconsin. Jennifer – she of the bright smile and long legged Jennifers of the world. Jennifer, who would in a matter of days become the love of my life, who would spend the next twenty one years glued to my side. There are chance encounters, random permutations of luck and timing, and then there was Jennifer. Jennifer ‘Do you have a passport’ Clemens. ‘Okay’ became a standing joke between us, the simplest word imaginable to set in motion an endless series of adventures.
“There’s a volcano! Wanna race to the top?”
If Jennifer of Newport Beach was a morphine drip fed scowl, Jennifer of Appleton was a serene smile, an imperturbable, old world smile grounded in mid-western common sense. She was JFKs glass half full, she was two years in the Peace Corps after earning her RN. Best of all, she’d never heard of Electric Karma, and neither did she know who I was, or what I did – and it never once mattered to her after she figured it out. She’d wanted to see the world, and in the beginning I was simply going her way. Her ticket to ride.
She’d been out on the bay a few times since she’d moved to San Diego the year before, ostensibly to get her Master’s in nursing, but she’d fallen into a different vibe after she settled in with a group of nurses – and she’d decided to ‘go back to school’ to learn other things. She didn’t know what she wanted to learn, only that learning was an imperative she couldn’t shake. She went to school days, worked tables at night, and spent weekends working at a free clinic – because that gave her the time and resources to do what she wanted. And what she wanted seemed to change from course to course – until what she really wanted was to break away and get out there. Travel. See the world. Learn. And love.
And maybe there was something mercenary in our coming together. She’d planted her feet in a place and at a time where sailors gathered before jumping off to the South Seas. Maybe her questions about where was I headed, and when was I leaving weren’t without purposes, or maybe now that she knew what she wanted she’d simply put herself in a position to get there. Maybe she would have been like an autumn leaf, blowing any way the wind blows – but for whatever reason she found her way – to me.
Because I’d forgotten to pack a few books. Because I couldn’t listen to music on my boat.
Sometimes life turns on the silliest, most inconsequential things. Sometimes love comes to you, and you’re damned if you turn away.
We put off leaving a day, only because that’s how long it took her to cut all the ties that bound her to life on shore, and when we slipped away that following morning I did so knowing this was almost a case of the blind leading the blind. I was not yet a deeply experienced sailor, and she was a neophyte – so we went slow. We sailed down to Ensenada, anchored out and rowed ashore, went to Hussong’s because that’s what everyone else did, then we made a longer trip south, to Guadelupe Island, about a third of the way down Baja, and after watching researchers diving with Great Whites we decided against swimming ashore. We baked out first loaves of bread together, learned how to move around the boat together, and we started listening to our hearts – with our minds. Not as simple as it sounds, too.
We hemmed and hawed, debated whether we should go to Cabo San Lucas and top off the water tanks or just strike out, head for the Marquesas, but as I’d stowed dozens of bottles of water to go with what Troubadour carried in her tanks we opted for the latter. So, setting a course of 210 degrees, we stared ahead at 3000 miles of open water – and what do you suppose happened?
I’d have, at one point, called it wedded bliss, but for the time being I called it Jennifer Clemens.
We’d set the wind vane and let it steer for hours on end, and the most joyous moments came when dolphins joined us from time to time. They came up from behind one morning and zinged alongside, playing in Troubadour’s bow wave and, as she has a tremendous bow-sprit Jennie lay up there, her hand outstretched, waiting. And every now and then one would spring up, let her take a touch on the fly, and those close encounters seemed to energize our little universe. She’d come back to the cockpit with this look in her eyes and I’d wrap myself within her arms and legs for a few hours. The second time that happened I looked up, saw we had an audience and I wondered what they thought of us. Were we really so different?
A great Atlantic storm entered the Caribbean, then crossed Panama and Nicaragua and made it’s way into the Pacific, and though it tracked north of us the remnants hit us, and hit us hard. It was my first real storm at sea without Jenn, yet Troubadour was built, like the Westsail, to handle these conditions – and she did, with ease. After the storm’s passage we both felt a surge of confidence, yet we knew it hadn’t been a real hurricane. Even so, we felt like we were becoming a team, that we worked well together.
The net result? We began to talk about ‘what comes next?’ Both for this voyage, and for us. I felt bonded to Jennie after that first storm, like she had become a part of me. Like that otherworldly loneliness I’d felt off the coast of La Jolla was truly a thing of my past, and now Jennie was my future. And I told her that, in no uncertain terms.
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“Spend my life with you.”
“Does that mean what I hope it means?”
So, right out there in the middle of nowhere, with only God standing as our lone, mute witness, we said what words we remembered and pledged to take care of one another ‘til death do us part. It was really that simple. Even if marriage is a civilizational construct, I felt comfort after that – knowing she had my back, and that I had her’s, too. Yes, that’s odd, but yes, that’s called being human. We weren’t meant to make this journey alone, yet the most staggering thing was how I knew she was ‘the one’ within minutes of meeting her. Does that seem strange – after Jenn and her razor blades?
When Jennie first came down to Troubadour that night she was still in her uniform, a short little dress with black tights under, a white blouse with a red vest over, and while she looked the boat over I looked her over. We talked for a few hours about the road she’d taken to San Diego, and where she hoped it would lead next, and the more she talked the more comfortable I grew with her voice. She might have looked flakey on first glance but really, she was anything but. She was as grounded as anyone I’d ever known, yet grounded to the beat of a different drummer.
I fell asleep with my head on her lap, and she was still with me when I woke up six hours later. When I slipped up and fixed coffee she woke and looked at me.
“So, you really want to do this?” she asked.
“Yup. Can’t imagine doing it without you.”
Yes. Life really can be that simple. You just have to open your heart and let it in.
Three thousand miles at a hundred and forty miles a day is 21 days, and my celestial nav was spot on so we nailed it, sailed into Taioha’e and cleared customs, then anchored out in an unexpectedly easygoing euphoria.
“We did it,” we sighed. We had, too.
She snuggled in and didn’t move for an hour, and then I heard her easy breathing, her gentle sleeping, and I settled in beside her for the duration.
I know this marks a departure from the flow of things, but we walked ashore a day later and found a small Catholic church, Jennifer being an Episcopalian and all, and we asked the guy with the white collar to do the whole marriage thing for real. No paperwork, mind you, just say the words before God I think you’d have to say, and he did and for some reason we felt for real after that. She took my name, a nice German-Jewish name, and jettisoned her Wasp-British name and she called her folks back home – who had no idea she’d left San Diego, mind you – and told them the news.
Major freak-outs ensued, by the way, and her folks told us they’d like to come to Tahiti to meet me, and to let them know when. Then we took off to do some grocery shopping.
Just like grocery shopping in the Marquesas was surreal.
No supermarkets, especially not in the early seventies, and very few tourists to get in your way. Want a new alternator belt for your Volvo Penta diesel engine? Say the words ‘fat chance’ three times as fast as you can. Then try backwards. Yup, it was about that easy. Fed Ex hadn’t quite figured out how to spell Marquesas back in 73-74, which meant an alternator belt would come by sea. Like maybe by copra schooner out of Papeete. I had a spare, of course, but what if that one cut loose? I needed a spare to replace my spare, and it looked like that would have to wait a few thousand miles, but I did find a mechanic savvy enough to locate the alignment issue causing the belt to wear prematurely. Problem solved, lesson learned and filed away on a 3×5 card – with notes and drawings attached.
Long distance sailing has been justly described as sailing to exotic ports and doing extensive maintenance, and after fifty years I can say I’ve pulled apart more engines in obscure places than I’d ever care to admit. I’ve replaced Troubadour’s original engine four times in fifty years, too. I maintain the things, do all the fluid changes at twice the most conservative intervals – like changing engine oil after every fifty hours of use – but I don’t run my engines often and the salt water environment simply kills them faster with little use. Yes, that’s correct. Marine engines are cooled with seawater, one way or another, even so-called fresh-water cooled engines, and salt kills metal, period. So, rule number one: shit don’t last and it’s got to be replaced. That’s why sailing is also described as standing in a cold shower – ripping up hundred dollar bills just for the sheer fun of it. That’s the nuts and bolts, but here’s the grease: the more you can do yourself the more affordable sailing becomes. The corollary? When you pay someone else to do the work, about 90% of the time the work is poorly done – or was just plain wrong, leading to more expensive repairs. When we made New Zealand a year or so later, I took a diesel mechanics course; it was the best six weeks I ever spent – in terms of saving money. I still have zero interest in engines, but I’ve always had tons of interest in saving money.
Anyway, Jennie was as good as her word. She wanted to explore. She wanted to meet people. And Jennie was an RN. A real, honest-to-Pete nurse. When word got out in the village she was an RN someone from the local hospital came down and asked if she would mind working on Hiva Oa at a clinic for a month or so. She looked at me and I shrugged ‘why not’, and off we went. There wasn’t a doc at the clinic there, it turned out, and she was doing front line work under a docs supervision – by radio – and she loved it, had never been happier. One month turned to two, then three, then her replacement – from France – finally turned up and we were free again.
Rangiroa was our next stop, inside the northeast pass by the village of Tiputa, and we stood by and watched Jacques Cousteau and Calypso maneuver into the lagoon and drop anchor a few hours after we had – and about a hundred feet away – and Jennie wound up working on the boat for two weeks while Cousteau & Co dove on the reefs just outside the pass. One night we heard Electric Karma’s second album blaring over an onboard hi-fi and when the crew found out the next day who Jennie’s main squeeze was we had a blowout on the beach that night that was truly epic. We became good friends and ran into Calypso several times over the next decade or so, yet that experience came to define most of the people we ran across out there. After a few months we both realized we’d be running into these same people time and again – because we were all like-minded explorers on the same path. We might not see John and Jane for a few months, but then there they’d be, in some out of the way anchorage no one had heard of before, and we’d exchange information and ideas, maybe some rum, too, then be on our separate ways.
During the three months we spent on Hiva Oa I got this Paul Gauguin thing going and started painting. Yeah, Gauguin spent most of his time in the Pacific on this island, and yeah, you could buy art supplies there. So I did. An old French gal taught me the basics and I started painting, and I’ve not stopped once since. When he dropped the hook someplace nice I’d start sketching anything and everything interesting, and in time we began searching out anchorages simply because they had scenic appeal. By the time we hit Papeete I was running out of places to store canvases.
Because of the time Jennie had worked on Hiva Oa all sorts of bonds and fees were waived in Tahiti, and we were extended the offer to spend more time in Moorea, in the village of Papetō’ai, if she’d work for another month or two. Okay, look at pictures of Cook Inlet on Moorea, then factor that getting a permit to anchor there was next to impossible, then hit enter. Now, you’ve just been given a permit to anchor there as long as Jennie was working there, plus a month. Free, as in no charge. We ended up anchored by a waterfall – for six months. I shipped fifty canvases back to LA; when my lawyer saw them she asked if she could buy a couple. Then she told me she had shown them to a gallery owner. They wanted to represent me. Please send more, they said. Bigger is better.
I already thought life couldn’t possibly get any better than this – and now please paint more? A month later word came that thirty plus paintings had sold, and the next time I sent in a batch I’d better count on returning to LA for a dedicated showing.
Then the inevitable happened.
Jennie’s parents, and two of her three sisters, announced their coming to Tahiti to meet the latest member of the family. And the two sisters were huge Electric Karma fans, too.
Oh happy day.
So, I rented a house for them to sleep in, and figured we’d take them sailing on the days Jennie had off, and on the day of their arrival we got on a Twin Otter at Temae and hopped across the channel to Papeete.
Warren Clemens looked like he’d just been called up by Central Casting to play the part of a midwestern preacher with an attitude problem. Problem is, looks can be deceiving. Warren was a hard drinking ex-Marine with a seriously deranged sense of humor. He was also a physician, a skilled general surgeon who also taught at the medical school in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was also a Green Bay Packers fanatic. I mean a real fanatic, not some half-assed wannabe. And as soon as Warren learned his baby girl was working at the local clinic he had to go see what she was up to.
And yeah, you guessed this one already, didn’t you?
As soon as they leaned he was this hot shot surgeon some kid gets pulled off a reef after a white tip reef shark tried to eat his legs off, and the kid’s half dead by the time they get him to the clinic. No way he’ll make it to Papeete, someone said.
If only we had a surgeon here?
And there goes mild-mannered Clark Kent into the phone booth, emerging seconds later in his red cape as Super Surgeon, ready to save the day. Yeah, he saved the kid’s life. Yeah, he did an appendectomy three days later. Then gall stones, then he repaired and set a compound fractured femur. Another appendectomy followed – and, mind you, he wasn’t getting paid for any of this – and he was having the time of his life. Long story short, for the next eight years Warren and his wife, the first mother I’d ever really known, came back to Moorea and he volunteered for two months at a stretch. He stopped coming – eight years later – only because he died; there’s a chapel in the forest overlooking Cook Inlet named after him. He’s buried there, and so is his wife, and my wife too, for that matter.
Mind you, all this happened because I forgot to pack some books on Troubadour. I mean, are you following along with the chorus here? It’s why my next solo album was called Serendipity, why a butterfly sneeze in Tibet comes across the Pacific as a typhoon. Everything is part of an endless chain of cause and effect, so trying to find the root cause for something is as pointless as asking what happened before the Big Bang. Who the devil knows? And who cares? It’s pointless and silly to ask the question, and Buddhists are on the right track when they say: accept what is. If you can’t handle that, go get an enema, flush your brain and get right with God. You ain’t gonna know, so chill out and paint another picture.
Warren’s two week trip stretched out to three, by the way, and he wept when he left.
Okay, enough about Warren. Let me introduce you to Michelle. My mother. Well, you know what I mean.
Michelle liked to play cards. She also taught physics. Quantum mechanics, to be more precise. She was one of a handful of women to work at Oak Ridge – on the Manhattan Project. To say she was smart was like calling Einstein a bright kid. To say Jennie came from the deep end of the gene pool was as scary as it was misleading. Scary because she was serving steaks at a waterfront restaurant in San Diego, waiting for me to come along. What if I’d gone to a bookstore in Westwood? Misleading? Because she had turned her back on all that, yet that’s who she was.
Michelle also liked to paint. Watercolors. Nothing but, and usually simple flowers. She taught me her techniques, and I was hooked. We spent hours walking off into the forests around the inlet and she’d find something new, sketch the rough outlines then pull out this monster Nikon F and start shooting away, getting just the colors she needed down on Kodachrome 25 for later reference.
So, time to meet my new sisters, Niki and Taylor. Both into music, seriously. Both teaching music. Both in love with the idea of me, the rock star, even before they met me. Both went nuts after spending a few hours with me on Troubadour. We spent evenings on the boat cooking and talking shop, then I’d pull out the old backpacker and start playing through the newest ideas, sounding my way through the classics and bridging the divide to rock, and they were all abuzz about Yes and ELP and Pink Floyd, and had I heard Dark Side of the Moon yet? Niki set me straight, and Us and Them became my new favorite when we found a cassette in Papeete a week later.
There are jagged spires around the island, some of the most inspiring peaks I’ve ever seen, yet many lack perspective unless seen from the sea, particularly along the west side of the island. We circumnavigated Moorea, all of us, slowly, over a two day period, and I should have bought Kodak stock before we set out: I don’t know how many rolls we blew through. Hundreds? Maybe – maybe more. It was nonstop – blow through 36 exposures then dash below to rewind and reload – and as I’d never seen this part of the island before I was just as pathetic, just as consumed. My only regret? I shot Ektachrome as there was no place to get Kodachrome developed out here, and some of the slides were fading fast by the time Jennie passed.
Still, some of my most cherished memories were captured during those three weeks. As I’ve mentioned, I’d not had a mother and father, let alone sisters, but by golly now I sure did. I would have fallen in love with them, all of them, simply for that reason, but they turned out to be really fun, really interesting people, and all of a sudden life felt complete. To put it succinctly, I’d not felt this good since Electric Karma’s heyday – and no stage fright, too. A year away and life was evolving into the best sleigh ride possible, not a care in the world and everything was just as easy as sliding along a country road in the snow.
Of course, shit had to hit the fan. It just had to.
And it hit from an unexpected direction.
Terry. My ‘grandmother.’ She’d married and divorced an old English movie star and was now simply destitute. He’d bled her dry and walked away, walked into the arms of a younger, more economically productive actress, and Terry was about as low as a human being could get when she got word to me through my lawyer that she needed help. I bought her a ticket from New York City to Papeete and she arrived two days before the Clemens clan was due to leave. By the time she got to Troubadour I’d told them my grandmother was coming, but not who she was, so when Terry McKay showed up onboard Warren clammed up tight, Michelle tried to act nonchalant – but failed, and the girls gushed. All in all, it was exactly what Terry needed. She was entranced by Moorea and I made an offer on the house I’d rented, bought it outright and she moved in – with the understanding that we’d all consider the place kind of a home base going forward. When local officials heard they had a genuine Hollywood legend in their midst…well, let’s just say they were very supportive of the idea. Warren was still tongue-tied every time he was around her, though.
We said our byes at the local airport, and as I said, Warren was a basket case. The experience had been as draining as it was fulfilling, and I hugged Michelle and the girls in a way that said everything. I was happy. They were too.
Terry was beside herself, of course. She and destitute were not on speaking terms, and I talked to my lawyer who talked to some people at Universal who talked to – yada-yada-yada – and she had an audition if she could get to it. She said she couldn’t, she wasn’t strong enough.
Could she if I went with her?
So off we went. We stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a first for me, because she had to ‘keep up appearances.’ The studio picked her up and I went to visit my gallery, dropped off a few new canvases. Visited my friend at Pop’s house, then my lawyer, and by the time I got back to the hotel Terry was in the room, out of her mind with anxiety. She wouldn’t hear for a week or so, and if she prevailed her presumed co-star would be none other than her ex.
“Let’s leave tomorrow,” she cried.
“Let me make a few calls,” I replied.
She got the part and her ex was passed over, the part going to David Niven instead, and she was suddenly ecstatic and destitute no more. Shooting would begin in two months so we returned to Moorea, and as I had a real workspace to set up a studio I started painting. Huge canvases this time, like six by ten feet, and this series was all Moorea, all misty mountains and rain forests full of furiously blooming flowers. Terry and I started walking the forests, she started photographing flowers and soon got into it, then she too wanted to learn watercolors and when I passed word along to Michelle she was over the moon too. Next summer would be fun, I reckoned, assuming Warren didn’t lose Michelle due to his obvious infatuation with Terry. I mean…Peyton Place, anyone?
Jennie was the one who picked up on Terry’s infatuation with me.
I’d never seen it before, obviously, but then again – what about Jenn. Jennie, on the other hand, was adroit at picking up these things. She read people and didn’t miss much, and she could spot a phony in two seconds flat. Terry was a phony. Insecure, not really talented but cute as hell. She was, in Jennie’s mind’s eye, a pretender. Terry’d made it this far on her looks alone, not to mention her ability to enchant men, and that was why, Jennie guessed, the old Englishman had ditched her. He’d seen through the bullshit and moved on. Jennie doubted the guy had swindled her, too; more likely she’d try to buy the guy off, keep him interested by buying him things. Classic, she said. Now she’d turned her attention on me – because I was safe. Because I’d give her all the attention she needed. Because of Pops. She was, in short, taking advantage of me.
Yeah. Maybe. I wasn’t buying it quite yet, but I could see her point. Regardless, she’d been a part of my life for years, some of the most important years of my life, and I wasn’t going to turn my back on her. If I had some justification to call her family, then where’s the line between being taken advantage of and doing one’s duty?
Funny thing, that. I’d never talked to Jennie about Jenn. Jenn and her razor blades, but for some reason I decided to that day. I ran down the whole sordid chronology, from the toxic relationship with her dad to the last attempt, and the abortion, in Vancouver.
She was appalled, I think.
Mainly, I reckon, that we’d not talked about it before. That led to a talk about abortion. We both hated the idea of it, but we both supported the idea that it was ultimately a woman’s right to choose. No big deal so far, right?
So why had I, in effect, ditched Jenn when she decided to have an abortion?
Because, I countered, I considered that child ‘ours,’ not just ‘hers’ – and by taking unilateral action to take that child from me she was declaring in the starkest possible terms I wasn’t part of her life.
“But she’s ill, Aaron. Couldn’t you see that?”
“But she was considered well enough to make that kind of decision? If she was well enough to consider the implications of ending a life, why wasn’t she considered well enough to take her own? I don’t get all these moral inconsistencies. They don’t make sense. How is it okay to kill a baby at four weeks but not at four months. I don’t get it…?”
“But still you think it’s okay if the mother wants to?”
“I think it’s wrong to butt into other people’s lives.”
“But it was okay to force someone into having a baby, because it was yours, too? But you were not going to carry that baby, were you? Or care for that baby if you two split? Maybe she was never secure enough in the relationship to think you’d always be there? After you split up in Honolulu, went back to LA…do you think she felt real secure about things?”
“I was disappointed, but we never talked about splitting…”
“Oh, come on, Aaron. How do you think she felt? And then she’s trapped on the boat with the one man in the world who was bound to torment, then abandon her – again. And what do you do? You abandon her, too? So yeah, why bring a kid into that world? What else is she gonna think? Her life has been one threat of abandonment after another, and all you did was validate her fears.”
I looked away, looked at a mist-enshrouded mountain across the inlet, and I could see Troubadour sitting comfortably at anchor beneath the rolling fog. Immediately I wanted to get out to her, pull up that anchor and set sail, head to New Zealand…hell, why not Antarctica? I could just keep on going, because circles never end, do they? Electric Karma was not supposed to end like that, but we were aborted, weren’t we? Five kids’ lives snuffed out by an air traffic controllers little mistake, another hundred kids’ lives ended by carelessness – so run away. Everything is endless circles, when you get right down to it. Everyone is scared shitless of being abandoned.
I didn’t sit with Jenn and try to help her reason things out. I ran away. I tossed an ultimatum in her lap – like a hand grenade? – then I ran from her room. I needed to run away, didn’t I? I didn’t fulfill my end of the bargain with Electric Karma. I ran away. Ran back to Pops, but I left them in Cleveland and they died. I should have ended when Deni and my mates did. But I ran. When Pops needed me most, when he got sick, I ran. I ran to Deni and my mates.
Abandonment? Guilt? Did I have issues?
I was running in circles, too. I had nowhere to go, nothing important to do, so I was running in the mist, running into mountains of guilt – and trying to paint pretty pictures of my aborted life. But what life was I talking about? The life my parents wanted. Oh yeah, those parents. The parents I never knew. Had I been running ever since? And what about them? – had they been running, too? Away from me? Away from their responsibilities to me? Just how far back did these circles go?
So…what’s out there on the other side of the Big Bang? What’s on the other side of all that sky? What would happen if you put all the matter in the universe into a suitcase, then waved a magic wand, said a few magic words and poof – you made the suitcase disappear. What would be left?
Like running in the night is silly, hiding from the answers right in front of your face. Running in circles. Running into endless answers in search of all their questions.
So, I painted for a few months, helped Terry read through her lines – and this was comfortable for us; it was something I’d helped her do since forever. I still felt close to her, still liked to bask in her glow, and when it was time we flew to LA together. I dropped off some paintings at the gallery, sat on the soundstage and watched David and Terry work some screen magic, and I sat in the Polo Lounge that afternoon and watched people watching Terry, still proud of her for being so beautiful.
And I called Jenn’s dad, asked how she was doing.
“Why are you asking me?” he said. “Why don’t you call her. Why don’t you ask her what’s going on?”
“Because I’m asking you.”
“It’s a struggle, Aaron. I’m finding out more and more about her life. About the role I played in this, and I’m not happy. Are you happy, Aaron?”
“About Jenn? No, not really.”
“No, I can’t imagine why you would be.”
“Should I try to see her while I’m here?”
“No. No, I can’t see that doing her any good now, but for the life of me I don’t know why you don’t come down and see your daughter.”
I think the word is thunderstruck.
“My – daughter?”
“Yes, your daughter.”
What followed lasted a half hour or so. I told him my version of events, he told me his. I told him I’d call my lawyer in the morning. He said that was fine with him. I hung up the phone, suddenly more concerned than anything else in the world that I had a baby girl – and she was being raised by that monster. I called the clinic on Moorea, left a message for Jennie to call me as soon as she got in. I went to Terry’s room in our bungalow out back by the pool and told her. She was aghast. I was sure Jennie would be, too, then, on a lark, I called my lawyer’s number – and she picked up.
She was working late, she said, on a big case going to trial in the morning, and I asked if she had a minute to listen to something important. She did, and I told her all I knew. Could she help, I asked? What do you want out of this? she wanted to know. Because if it’s raising a kid on a boat vs with her grandparents in a house in Newport Beach, you’re going to lose. I want to know why no one ever told me, I said. Well, she said, you left, didn’t you? Because, I said, she told me she’d had an abortion! Why am I the bad guy here, I wanted to know?
She listened, I could hear her taking notes and she asked me to give her a few days, then she’d get on it, highest priority.
I thanked her and let her go, then turned to Terry.
“What do you want, Aaron? When all is said and done, what do you want?”
And then I noticed she was laying out on the bed dressed like a lingerie model, right down to the five inch heels.
“What do you need, Aaron?” she said again, rolling over, spreading her legs just a little.
“What are you doing, Terry?”
“I’m going to give you what you need. What you’ve needed for a long, long time.”
“I don’t need this, Terry. Not now, not ever.”
“You’re wrong, Aaron. You’ve wanted me for as long as I’ve known you, and don’t even try to deny it.”
“There’s a big difference between wanting and needing.”
“Not tonight, there isn’t.”
She stood and walked over to me, and really, I knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do. She was an irresistible force, as gorgeous as any woman alive – and she’d baited her trap and waited for me to fall into her grasp. Now she had me, and she knew it. That night was the most sensuously vacuous I ever spent in my life, at once meaningless and as fraught with surreal consequence as any I ever enjoyed. When our night was over, she told me, it was over, but I remembered Jennie’s admonishments and knew it would never be over now.
I was back in my room when Jennie called, and I told her about my daughter and current circumstances vis my lawyer’s inferences.
“What do you want to do?” she asked too. “Bring her out here?”
“That would be ideal, but my lawyer, Shelly, says that living on the boat…”
“That’s bullshit,” Jennie said. “There are kids on half the boats we run into out here, and besides, you have a house here, remember?”
“I forgot to mention that.”
“What about you? What do you think about all this?”
“I think you should try for some sort of joint custody. You take her now, and when Jenn is better you revert to some more traditional sharing structure.”
“That’s not what I mean. What about you? How would you feel about having her around?”
“Me? I’d love it, but it seems to me the biggest thing is to get her away from Jenn’s father.”
“So, how’s LA?”
“The same, only worse.”
“I watched Terry and David on the soundstage yesterday. They look good together.”
“Aaron, she’d look good with Hitler.”
I laughed. Maybe a little too much. “You got that right.”
“How are you, Aaron? You sound weird.”
“I couldn’t sleep. I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“I’ll let you know when I hear something…”
So yes, a lie can be an act or omission, can’t it? And I had just lied, maybe the biggest lie of my life, to the most important woman in my life. And a few minutes later in walks Terry, still dressed to the nines, still hungry. And still I couldn’t say no to her. She was a cannibal, feasting on my indecision – and she was hungry.
And maybe I wasn’t running in circles, I thought later that day. Maybe my circles were running after me, and I wasn’t moving fast enough to get out of their way. Then I remembered that sea lion in the drifting kelp that morning off La Jolla. All those things I imagined circling in the night. Kill or be killed. Isn’t that what I told myself that night?
And then I realized I didn’t even know my daughter’s name.
After I talked to Shelly, my lawyer, two days later, I went to LAX – on her advice – and returned to Moorea, and to Jennifer. I returned after three more intense encounters with Terry, who I now knew I could not, and would not ever be able to resist. Fact of life. My big flaw. She was bourbon to an alcoholic. It wasn’t incest, it was worse. She was a violation of every known law of nature. I watched men stare at her when she entered a room – and I understood. I could not understand why she had chosen me. And let me be clear right here: I did not want to understand. I wanted to get as far away from her as I could, and stay there. I did not want to see her again, because I knew I’d want her again. Because I knew I would not be able to resist her again. I would not, because I could not.
And yet when I fell into Jennifer’s arms it was the most comforting wave of emotion I’d ever felt, a homecoming so overpowering it left me breathless. She wanted me – bad – she said, and we crawled up on the forward berth – and I couldn’t get it up. I’d been drained by Terry and didn’t have anything left, so Jennie put it down to jet-lag. I’d be better tomorrow, she said, but I wasn’t. I was overcome – with all consuming guilt. I’d violated a sacred trust and I wondered, could an agnostic wandering Jew go to a Catholic church and pretend to be gentile long enough to make it through the confessional? Could I say a dozen ‘Hail Mary’s’ with a straight face – and not have a vengeful God send me straight to Hell?
Then I was worrying about Tracy, my daughter. And I still couldn’t get it up.
We’ll get over it, Jennie said, but now I wasn’t so sure. When I closed my eyes at night I saw Terry on that bed, her legs on my shoulders, her stockinged legs resting beside my face as I plowed her fertile valley. I could feel her all encasing warmth, my searing orgasm, the smoothness of her cool legs on my face when I went between her thighs. So…if I couldn’t have her now, was I simply going to obsess about her. She was going to take over my life – in absentia.
“Why don’t we head south, for New Zealand,” Jennie said a few days later.
“What? I thought they…”
“My replacement from France arrives Friday.”
“You ready to move on?”
“I think so. We can come back here if Mom and Dad decide to return next summer, maybe for a week or two, but I’ve been thinking about Auckland. Maybe go to school for a semester?”
“Okay. Let’s go over to Papeete and get the bottom painted, pick up a few spares. We can go from there.”
“Okay. When can we leave?”
“I don’t know? Tomorrow too soon?”
“No. The sooner the better,” she said, and I knew then. Knew she could feel Terry in this place. Terry all over me. Terry’s skin on my face, on my breath…
We set sail at sun-up; it was only a short hop, really. Just 15 miles, nothing like the 2600 miles jump to New Zealand’s North Island that lay ahead, and we got there late morning, got Troubadour checked in at the yard and went out to find a hotel. We got a room in one of the old places along the waterfront, hard by the Parc Bougainville, and when we got to our room it was a little difficult to feel where Paris ended and Tahiti began. I called the yard, told them where we were, and they told me it would be two days at least before they could start on Troubadour. No problem, I said as I looked at Jennie.
She wanted to go out, by herself she said, and she took off, said she’d be back in a couple of hours. I showered, stood under the water for what felt like days, called room service and had them bring me some lunch. I looked at my watch, called the Beverly Hills Hotel then hung up the phone and called Shelly, my lawyer.
“We have a hearing on the 23rd,” she told me.
“Yeah. You’ll need to be here. Oh, the house is vacant now. Want me to get it cleaned up so you can stay there?”
“Yeah, might as well.”
“What about Terry? Move her in?”
“We’ll see. Maybe after I leave.”
“I think she likes the hotel. I’ll check with her and see what she wants to do.”
“Oh. Well, have her call me if she needs the key.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll try to get in on the 21st or so,” I said, and I gave her my number at the hotel then rang off. And made the call to the hotel again, asked for her bungalow.
“Terry, it’s me.”
“Goodness. Missing me already?”
“I’ve got to return on the 21st for a hearing, and Shelly told me the house is vacant now. You want to move in for now?”
“Are you planning to stay there when you come up?”
“Do you want to be alone?”
I took a deep breath. “No,” I said.
“Then you won’t be.”
“If Jennie decides to come let me know.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
And there it was. The first time she’d ever said that to me. The first time I’d ever said anything like that, to her. No hesitation. No duplicity. It’s what I felt, and I knew it was wrong. And how could I love Jennie at the same time?
I called Air France, made my reservation to fly back to LA, and was just wrapping up the call when Jennie came back to the room. She saw me on the phone and frowned, and when I told her about the hearing she nodded her head.
“Maybe I should go back to Wisconsin for a while,” she sighed. “Could you get me on the same flight?”
I called Air France again, made the reservation. One way, open return – for now – I told the agent, and Jennie walked over to the window and looked down at the waterfront.
“I like this city,” she sighed when I hung up the phone.
I joined her, stood beside her and we looked out to Moorea across the channel.
“How long will you need to be in LA?”
“I’m figuring on a week.”
“Anything I need to know?”
“No. Not really.”
“What did you find out there?”
“Oh, just some girl stuff.”
“Yeah. I’ll show you later. You hungry?”
“I ordered some stuff from room service.”
“Guy stuff. Real food.”
She laughed. “I didn’t know they make hamburgers out here? Snails, yes, but hamburgers?”
Knock on the door, waiter rolled in a cart and after I tipped him he split. Two onion soups, escargot, broiled sea bass and huge prawns – for two.
“Perfect timing,” she added.
“I like to think I take care of you, kid.”
“You do, you know.”
“Because I love you,” I said.
“I know – I love you too. Maybe even more than you know.”
We ate in silence, then she went and took a shower. I heard her taking stuff out of her shopping bags, and she was taking her time getting dressed, then:
“Could you pull the drapes, turn out the lights?”
She came out a minute later – dressed to the nines. Lingerie, heels, everything in white, and she walked over to me.
“Do you like me like this?”
I nodded my head.
“Does she…” she began, but she stopped herself, looked down at me. “Show me,” she said as she lay on the bed.
“You really are lovely,” I said during my second orgasm.
We didn’t leave the room for five days, then we held hands across the Pacific, we cried when she left on the flight to Milwaukee. I drove to the house on Foothill Road and Terry was there waiting for me. Dressed in blacks and grays, the sexiest woman in the world – all mine. No questions asked. I had not the slightest problem getting up. I had not the least hesitation in my voice when I told her that I loved her. Because I did.
I was between her thighs again, my face against her warmth, then I felt her shuddering, clutching my head with fierce fingers, and as she came down I moved up and entered her. I didn’t last long; I never did when she had her legs up on my shoulders, when I felt her heels on the side of my face. When I came down I looked at her, my perfect lover, and I started to cry.
She looked up at me and smiled.
“Don’t worry about all this, Aaron,” she said as she pulled me down. She kissed me, held me close. “I’ll just be here for you when you need me,” she whispered. “I don’t want anything more. Just to know that you still love me is all I’ll ever need. Okay? You don’t have to choose. I’ll just be here for you, always. Whenever you need me.”
And I was growing inside her warmth again, all movement involuntary now. Holding her face to mine we kissed as I fell into her movement again, and I pulled back a little, looked into her eyes as I came again. What had simply been sex before grew into something fierce and eternal in the next few minutes, yet I was more confused than ever. What could come of this, I wondered, but infinite heartbreak.
She came with me to the hearing.
I think because Shelly knew the judge was a big fan. Jennifer’s father was there, of course, and he seemed to read the expression on the judge’s face, knew he’d lost, and in the end I won temporary guardianship pending a final review once Jenn was out of the woods and able to stand on her own two feet. It was decided that I’d pick Tracy up in two months, and that I’d return to LA to pick her up after I arrived in New Zealand.
When we left Jenn’s father looked at me like I was the anti-Christ. He did, I think, because we only called one witness, one of Jennifer’s psychiatrists. She all but blamed Jennifer’s condition on her father, and pointed to him, called his behavior monstrous. The judge noted that her father perjured himself when he declared in court he’d made a good faith effort to notify me, and that he was lucky she wasn’t sending him to jail.
Terry, for her part, batted goo-goo eyes at the good judge, which I think made his day. Then we all went down to Newport so I could meet my daughter. It was a supervised visit at his lawyer’s office, and I couldn’t tell who she looked like. Not me, not Jenn, not either of her parents, then Terry spoke up: “She looks just like your mother, Aaron.”
And I cried. I held my daughter and cried at unseen memory.
Barely a year old, she held her little hand out and touched my face, my tears, and I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did, of course, then Terry and I drove back to the house on Foothill Road.
“You’d better call Jennie,” she said.
“Don’t you need to call the studio?”
“Nope. I’m not expected til the day after tomorrow, five in the morning. I’m going to go take a shower,” she said, smiling.
I called Jennie.
“Well, it looks like we’re going to be parents,” I said.
“It’s temporary, but she’s ours.”
“Oh-dear-God. I can’t believe it!”
“Until Jenn is out on her own, anyway. Just like you said. When we get to Auckland, we can come up and get her.”
“Are you happy?” she asked.
“Yes, I am. For us all, and maybe for Tracy most of all. How’re your parents?”
“Same as ever. When do you want to return?”
“I, uh, well, do you want me to come back with you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Are you sure?”
“Jennie? What’s this about?”
“If you want me, tell me when to be at the airport,” she said, and then she hung up the phone.
I went and sat in Pop’s chair, thought about Tracy and what my mother might have looked like as a child, then I heard Terry in the bedroom and I knew she was waiting for me. I walked in and looked at her on the bed, all her lingerie and shoes a light gray, and she looked like pure sexuality unleashed. I showered, found her on the bed rubbing herself and she was wet when I got to her.
The whole dressing up thing mystified me for a while, then I began to look at it as wrapping oneself up as a present. But no, I found I liked all that stuff to remain on, so I began to see it as patterning. Like as kids, people of my generation were programmed to see lingerie and heels and think sex, so seeing it now was like programming a response. And when I saw Terry dressed like this I was almost overcome with instant lust; when I slipped inside I did so with her legs, often her shoes, on my face. Feeling these things kicked off images in my mind, propelled my response, and as I entered her, as her slippery warmth enveloped me I could smell the leather of her shoes, feel her silky nylons on my cheeks, and everything was like this surreal feedback loop. She didn’t have to tell me what these thing meant, she knew what they did to me. I assumed she knew what they did to all men, but I didn’t really care by then. I was inside her and the feeling was pure magic. I’d slide in quickly then pull back slowly, fast–slow over and over, then I’d pull out and just run myself over her clit then enter her again. Then she pushed me over and mounted my face, ground her clit onto my tongue until the tremors began, then her release was overwhelming. I flipped her over and entered her again, driving into her until I came…then it was flow down for a while until I was ready to go again. I could usually go for two, and with a break for dinner, take her a third time in one day, and she seemed to want as much as I could give her.
And I wondered if that’s what she meant. When she said she’d always be there for me. Was she programming me to need her? Making me accept her as a main part of my life? If so, it was working. And well, too.
Then she surprised me again.
“We’re getting to close, Aaron. I’m not sure I can keep doing this and not have you with me all the time. I’m addicted to you now, can’t think of anything else. I want you so much when I’m away from you it’s beginning to affect my work, and I don’t know what to do anymore…”
“Terry? Can I ask you something?”
“Oh, Aaron…anything, anytime…”
“What do you want? I mean, deep down, what would make you happiest?”
She rolled and looked at me. “In the end, I’d like you to love me no matter what, but I think I’d like you to marry Jennie, try to make a home for that little girl, the three of you. I’d like you to come see me every now and then, remind me how much we mean to each other. Maybe you and I could get married, but the cost would be enormous, wouldn’t it? But we could keep things just the way they are now and no one would be the wiser. I’d just go on loving you and, I assume, you’d go on loving me too. When you need me, I’d be there. Always. No questions asked. Just…always.”
“Okay. I accept you on those terms. Forever. I can’t not love you. And I can’t stop needing you. I can’t, Terry. I mean that. I don’t know if you’ve tried to make me need you the way I do, or whether time conspired to do this to us, but I’d rather die than know I’d never be with you again…”
She folded herself into me then, held me so tight for so long I thought we’d fuse, but a while later I felt that stirring and so did she. She went down on me, brought me back to life again and she straddled me for what felt like hours, reaching down, rubbing herself as she rocked back and forth until she came again and again, then she slipped down between my legs and finished me with her mouth. I picked her after and carried her to the shower and we bathed one another, then dressed and went out to dinner.
When we came back after dinner I called Air France, then called Jennie. “Be at the airport at 10:30 tomorrow morning. American to LAX, change to Air France.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
The reality is more difficult, of course. Loving two women. I mean really, really loving them. Caring for each as you would one. Terry drove me out to LAX the next afternoon and she told me not to say goodbye. “Never, ever, do I want to hear those words from you,” she told me. “All I want to hear from you is that you want me, that you need me. You never have to tell me that you love me because I know you do, with all my heart I know you do.”
I nodded, looked her in the eye. “And you love me?”
“With all my heart. And I’ll always be here for you. Nothing will ever change that.”
I kissed her once, gently, then got out of the car and walked into the terminal. I watched Jennie’s plane land and met her at the gate, then we walked over to International Departures, waited to board the jet for Papeete. I held her hand all the way through the terminal, and she said not one word to me until we were seated in the lounge, waiting for our flight to be called.
“You feel alright about what happened.”
“Yes. I think everything’s going to work out well enough.”
“You and me? You think we’re going to work out?”
“I do. Yes.”
“I think she’s where she wants to be now, doing what she wants, anyway.”
“I see,” she said – looking out the window, expecting to fly.
Troubadour was in the water, ready to load fresh provisions onboard when we got back to the yard, and we spent a day getting things loaded. We got a hundred pounds of ice in the box, then settled in for the night, had some wine and watched the sun set, then we were out light a light. The weather forecast looked grim when we checked the next morning, so we went back to the hotel to sit it out, and Jennie pulled out her lingerie our second night there – and I plowed her fields, and after that everything got back to normal, or close to it, anyway.
She talked more, we kidded around and went shopping. I bought her a ring, one to wear on her left hand, and she said it didn’t mean anything unless I did too, so she picked out a plain band and slipped it on my finger. That really seemed to calm her down and after that we slipped into our old groove. And you see, the thing is I’d taken Terry at her word. I stopped worrying about it, her, and let it slip into the background – and I focused on Jennie, on making her happy.
We took off two day later and in the aftermath of the storm we had solid wind all the way to Auckland, an all too brief 16 day voyage, but with unsettled seas all the way it wasn’t exactly easy, or pleasant.
The plan was to haul the boat for winter, replace some rigging and all the sails (yes, they wear out too, and fast in the tropics), so we’d rent a house while Jennie worked on upping her nursing qualifications. I decided to take that class on diesel mechanics then, too, and we planned to start after our upcoming trip to pick up Tracy in LA. So, first things first, I called Shelly, asked if everything was still a ‘Go,’ and it was. I got tickets for the two of us headed north, and three coming back. I let Terry know the situation and she told me she was off to Morocco during that time for a shoot, and she told me she was sorry she’d miss me. Okay. Sure. I made a shopping list for boat supplies and we took off on the anointed day.
It’s a long flight, and the Air New Zealand DC-8 stopped in Papeete for fuel – which felt kind of silly. The long haul was next, and after we rolled into the house – well past midnight – we dropped into the sack and slept for days. Well, it felt like days. After we ran errands, boat stuff for the most part, we crashed again so we could wake up early to meet Shelly down in Newport the next morning.
I half expected Jenn to be there, but no, that was not to be. Her father was a no-show, too. He sent Tracy with a sheriff’s deputy, I think to upset her more than any other reason, but it was a vintage choice even for that asshole. Tracy got to the lawyer’s office, upset, and we spent a while calming her down before heading back to the house. We took her swimming that afternoon, took her Disneyland the next day, then for a really long airplane ride the day after that.
And never a word from or about Mommy.
New Zealand was very quiet and most civilized in the 70s, and an ideal place to raise kids. Jennie decided to get full nursing certification after spending a month in school there; she opted to go for full citizenship a few months later. I opted to remain a US citizen, yet the fact that I had some money and that Jennie and I were married gave her the opening she needed. I decided to get Tracy in the queue for citizenship too, just in case, and so she started school there two years later. Well, kindergarten, but you know what I mean, and by that point Jennie considered herself Tracy’s Mum. More important still, Tracy started calling Jennie ‘Mommy,’
In order to maintain US citizenship I had to return home periodically, roughly twice a year, and of course Terry always happened to be there. On my first trip home I upgraded the recording studio in the basement and started working on my next album and, as Jennie’s sister Niki had a helluva a voice I asked her to come down and work on a few songs with me. I moved into the pool house for the duration of her stay and Terry behaved herself, and after three months hard work I sent the masters over to MCA and sure enough, they liked ‘em. Serendipity released in ’76 and happily it went gold by summer’s end, and the title song included Niki’s voice – and almost overnight she became a minor sensation. She’d penned several songs and we arranged them, I played keyboards on all of them and had some friends help with the other instruments and MCA loved her album, too. It went platinum in a month and all of a sudden she was not only famous, she was rich as snot. She took off for Wisconsin after the master tapes went to Burbank, leaving me alone with Terry for the first time in six weeks. We tore into each other and only came up for air after a week, just before my scheduled return flight came up.
And still, no word of Jenn.
Jennie and Tracy met me at the airport – in Papeete – as it was time for Warren and Michelle’s annual visit to Moorea. Tracy and Michelle went on walks looking at flowers while Jennie and her father worked at the clinic, and soon enough Tracy was working at an easel with Michelle, painting flowers.
I spent my days working on my biggest canvas yet, an eight foot tall by twenty four foot wide panorama of, you guessed it, a misty mountain in the fog. Framed by windblown trees and a rolling surf in the distance, however. Then I got word MCA wanted me in LA for a concert in the Amphitheater, so I called Shelly – in the middle of the night my time – to get the lo-down.
“A bunch of people want to do an Electric Karma tribute concert, Aaron. They want you there, and they want Niki to take Deni’s place. She’s asked me to represent her, by the way. It would mean the big time for her.”
“What? A concert at the Amphitheater?”
“No…haven’t you heard? They’re talking the Coliseum. A hundred and twenty thousand people. Some big names have signed on already.”
“What would Niki take home?”
“Maybe a half million, maybe a little more.”
I whistled. “Okay. When?”
“Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“October. You have three months to get ready.”
“What’s my take?”
She told me and I whistled again.
“Aaron, you can’t turn this down. It’s the chance of a lifetime for Niki, and it’ll keep you in the spotlight for a whole new generation of listeners…you’ll be set for life. So, Tracy will be set for life.”
“Okay, tell ‘em I’m in. You take point for now, start setting up rehearsals, probably late August, early September. See if MCA is interested in cutting an album of the concert, and ask Dean if he’ll do the stage. You do good and you can have twenty percent of my cut, on both the concert and the album, including my residuals. Got that?”
She was silent for a minute. “You mean it?”
“Shelly, my life would be shit without you. Make this work, get Niki on the fast track. Yeah, I mean it.”
“Aaron…I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, Shelly? This is the best way I can thank you for everything you’ve done. But, thank you.”
“Yeah,” she said, and I could hear her voice crack a little. “Could I ask you a personal question?”
“What’s going on with you and Terry? Is there anything that could blowback on you?”
“If it happens, am I authorized to do damage control?”
“Absolutely. Write that into our contract.”
“Anything in the wind?”
“No, nothing. Just a gut feeling.”
“Well, if something crops up, make it go away.”
“Will do. Should I call, leave messages at that clinic?”
“For now. I’ll see about getting some kind of phone at the house.”
When I turned around Jennie was coming out of the OR, her dad right behind, and they were both dripping in sweat. She saw me on the phone and frowned as she came over, and Warren came up too.
“What’s up?” she asked. “You look jazzed.”
“You better sit down, both of you.”
They sat; Warren looked concerned. I told them about the concert, and about the deals I was trying to get Niki. “It’d mean a half million in the bank, on top of what she’s made on the album already, but it would put her in the spotlight. She’ll be big. Bigger than big, would be my guess. She took my advice, signed with Shelly, my lawyer.”
Warren’s hands were shaking. “My girl…will make more in one night than I do in ten years?”
“You’re doing all this for her – why?”
I looked at him, then at Jennie. “You’re my family, all I’ve got left in this life. Niki is too. I’m doing what I can for my family. Simple as that.”
I looked at Jennie. “Rehearsals in LA, end of August, concert is on Halloween, in the LA Coliseum. I think we should all be there. All of us.”
“Okay,” she said, looking me in the eye, “we will be.” I could tell my hands were shaking too, and she looked at them, then up at me. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Hyped, I guess, is the word.”
“Why don’t you go up to LA now. Get started. I can see it in your eyes…that’s what you want to do.”
I nodded my head. “I know. I want to be here with you guys, though.”
“So stay, head back with Mom and Dad.”
“Yeah. We’ll see. I need to finish my painting, spend some time with Tracy. Maybe a little with my wife, too.”
She came to me and we hugged, and Warren stepped outside, lit up a Camel and coughed. Then we kissed.
“You should know,” she whispered. “I’m pregnant.”
I blinked, then my eyes went wide. “Holy smokes!” I managed to say – before she kissed me.
Different people bring out different things in me.
I thought about that all the way up to LA. When I was with Jennie I painted. I painted because I became interested in the visible world, the visual world. When I was with Terry I fell into my music. I could think music because she had been a part of my life since my teens, when music became important to me. When I was around Jennie the music almost stopped. When I was even thinking about Terry music poured in from every direction, but when I was around her music grew into a tidal wave.
I’d written all of Electric Karma’s music, Deni the lyrics, so that music would always be a part of me, yet when I put together the first solo album all that vibe slipped away. There was nothing about Karma I wanted to incorporate. But that was then and this was now. Now, sitting on that 747 all I could think about was Deni and the music we’d made together. And flying home to Terry was opening the floodgates of memory. By the time we landed I had written three new Karma songs. With Niki on vocals, no one would be able to tell this wasn’t Electric Karma – so why not cut a new Karma album? Get my old buds from San Francisco to cover guitar and bass and drums and the sound would be as authentic as it had been eight years ago…
Warren and Michelle regarded me as some kind of sorcerer all during that flight, but when I told them what I was thinking they kind of sat back and watched – in awe, I think. I asked them to have Niki call me as soon as they got home, then we said our goodbyes. I found the baggage claim had been moved – again – and it took me a while to find my bag – then Terry – but she was where she said she’d be. She drove straight home and ran for the shower, and I ran down to the studio and put my notes on my keyboard, then ran back up and joined her.
“Do you have anything going on the next three weeks?” I asked.
“You may not leave my side for the next three weeks, not once, not at all.”
“You’re on fire, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you like this in years.”
“I finally put two and two together, Terry. I can’t write good music unless you’re by my side. They stuff I’ve churned out when you’re not near me is garbage. Ever since Lucy-Goosey, when you’re with me it all comes together. You are the music in my life, my love. Without you I’m a hollow shell.”
She looked at me as if I’d slugged her in the gut, then she came to me, put her arms around me and I felt her crying on my chest – then I lifted her face to mine and we kissed.
“You called me…my love? Do you realize…?”
I nodded my head. “Of course I do, because I feel that now, as surely as I ever have. You are so much a part of me it’s insane. It’s surreal. I can’t even think music without you…”
“Aaron? Are you okay?”
“No, Terry, I am not okay. I am on fire. I am on fire because you have set me on fire. You’ve set me on fire ever since I’ve been interested in writing music. I doubt that I’ve ever written anything that wasn’t for you. Do you know the first piece of music I ever wrote was named after you. A little piano concerto. For you.”
“I didn’t know…”
“I think I always wanted to impress you, to be worthy of you.”
“Worthy – of me?”
“Yes, you. The most beautiful woman in the world.”
“Aaron…you can stop now.”
“No…I can’t. I’ve got at least ten songs to write, and you’ll need to stay right by my side. All the time. Understand?”
I picked her up and carried her out of the shower, then I dried her off, every inch of her.
“What color would you like me to wear for you tonight?” she asked.
She smiled. “I hoped you’d say that.”
“I know. You have for a long time, haven’t you?”
She smiled, nodded and left the bathroom. “Give me a minute, would you?”
I went to the kitchen, fixed a Perrier and looked out the window at lemon trees blossoming in a breeze, and I could even smell them inside that moment, then I walked back to the bedroom. The lights were off, only a few candles blazed on a corner table, but Terry was there. Shiny black latex – everywhere. The highest heels I’d ever seen. A riding crop.
“Come here,” she commanded, then: “On your knees. Crawl to me. Crawl to me and lick my shoes!”
Yes. That was indeed an interesting evening. Interesting music, I think you could rightly say, too.
I spent the next morning on a song I called Lemon Tree, the afternoon’s effort would be titled Shining Need. Terry stood behind me almost the entire morning looking at my scribbled notations, and when noon came ‘round she pulled me to the floor and sat on my face for an hour, pulling me with her fingernails until I came – in her mouth – but I couldn’t get the night before out of my music. When I played it through for her she blushed, then I told her to shower and put on the latex again. “And Terry? You must be meaner tonight. You must take us where we’ve never been before.”
And she did. I was stunned at her ferocity, and how easily it came to her. Her need was shining now, shining right through me on a place I’d never been.
We went out to the swimming pool after, and I left the lights off. We slipped into the water and I pulled her close, pulled her onto me and I held her closer still as I entered. We rocked in the water until I felt myself tensing then releasing inside her, still swaying gently, holding her lips to mine until she began to tremble her way through her own release – and the water was black now, faint stars danced on the surface – and I wondered who was out there watching and waiting, circling, ready to come in for the kill…
The next morning? Starlight Blood, a heavy brooding place that scared us both when I played through the final draft. “We have to go someplace lighter now,” she said after lunch, “or I may end up killing us both.”
“I’m not ready for death, but when I am, I want to die in your arms. Promise me you’ll do that for me.”
“Death won’t be able to hold us apart. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded her head.
Those two lines formed the core of the next track, Fate and Promise.
We made love in the pool that night until we could hardly move, then I carried her to the shower and massaged her back to life, and I pulled her so close to me in bed I dreamt of the way her hair smelled.
Which became Sin Scintilla in our next morning.
She reminded me she hadn’t had anything to eat – but me – for two days, so we drove down to the beach, to Gladstones, and we ate Shee Crab soup and broiled shrimp on rice pilaf, then we walked on the beach for an hour, her music beating into me as the sand pushed between our toes.
Which became Seashell, an unfolding story about eternal love
And on and on it went. Every breath she took led me deeper into her music.
Until the last track.
Deni. A ballad about Deni, and why she mattered. We were a broken soul, your music made us whole… My other love. Broken, fluttering and doomed. I broke apart and came undone when I finished those lyrics, and Terry helped me up, led me to our bed and when she lay me down I pulled her on top of my face and ate her until she wept too, then we slept.
I called Jerry and Carlos and Pete – and Niki – and asked them to come by the house next Monday morning.
“We’re going to cut Electric Karma’s last album,” I told them.
“Far out,” Jerry said.
And Pete…my oldest friend in the world would be there in the middle of it all, again. God, I was so happy.
I could feel the changes Niki was going through, I’d seen it all so many times before. Sudden fame, almost immeasurable wealth had turned her from petite and unassuming to bigger than life almost overnight. She had that force now, the force money confers on the once so meek. She was a year older than I and that, in her mind, justified this new assertiveness – until Shelly pulled her aside and set her straight.
“Aaron’s done this for you,” Shelly told her. “All of this. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget to dance with the one who brung ya.”
She mellowed out, tried to accept that Deni was still bigger than she was. That Deni was one of the strongest voices of the 60s, and that the 60s still defined rock ‘n roll. People helped her understand what she was being given – a seat at the table – if she had the grace and the good sense to sit quietly and listen for a while, to learn.
She was a midwestern gal so full of common sense, and it took her a couple of days but she settled down, watched and listened to Carlos and Jerry, two of the biggest of the San Francisco bigs, as they wrestled with my music. We settled into the new-old vibe again, the collaborative nature of making music. I played a passage and they interpreted what I wrote. The last thing I could do was object to someone hijacking ‘my’ music – that’s not the process. We took my framework and turned it into our version of Karma in 1968. I led Niki into that wilderness, too, let her phrases blend in the music, and we listened to her when she started making suggestions, because that too is part of the vibe. We’d take her thoughts and blend them into the whole – because that IS the vibe – and at the end of the first day I was already looking at Niki like she was part of Deni. Even Jerry, who was still devoted to Deni and what she meant to the scene, started to feel that Deni thing when Niki started singing, and at one point he looked at me and nodded his head slowly, like ‘yeah, I get it now, why you chose her.’
We came together as Electric Karma for two weeks, then we carried the tapes down to MCA and let the folks have a listen. Everyone was blown away, there were even some tears, too, and as I’d hoped they talked about weaving this new material into the old when we played the Coliseum, and this news jazzed me pretty good – as I already knew this would be my last hurrah. Jerry and Carlos had their own things going, and Niki? Hell, who knew where she’d go after this, but it would be big. Me? I planned to do some serious sailing when Tracy got big enough to walk Troubadour’s decks. We were going to see the world together, maybe learn to make our own together.
It was September by then, time to get down to choosing the old numbers we’d play, then playing them over and over until we had them in memory, and all the while I kept the recorders going, laying down tapes of our sessions.
And yeah, Terry was there. Low-key and in the background, and I had to explain to Nik what Terry meant to me – in such a way that the deeper nature of our relationship didn’t overpower her – but Niki said she got it, that she understood, and that she wouldn’t fuck it up for Jennie. I started to love Niki after that. When she came into the room I looked at her and smiled inside, and there were times – like when she fell into the old Deni vibe – that she’d come to me and talk. About what Deni really meant to me, the whole love heroin thing.
“I feel that with you,” she said. “This thing inside the old music. The tension, almost like there was this carnal undertone playing out between her words and your music. When I sing Deni I want to reach out and hold you, then I want to fuck your brains out.”
“That’s what it was like, man,” Jerry said, coming over and sitting with us. “We’d sit around listening to her and it was like, man, I got to get inside this chick’s head, see where this power’s coming from. Then one day I knew. She didn’t simply project love, she was mainlining lust and when you watched the way she sang you wanted that lust too. You felt like you needed to take her because that’s what she wanted you to do. Now…imagine that happening in the room at the Fillmore…with hundreds of dudes getting amped up on that vibe. She was fucking with fire, I mean literally fucking fire onstage, daring people to fall into her vibe.”
It’s what happens when you fall inside music. When you make it, not listen to it. The notes start playing through your synapses and as you mold the music into your being it comes through your life like a hot knife. The Feel Flows through you, if you dig Brian Wilson – white hot glistening. When you’re playing you become this other thing: you, and the music in you takes over. When you come down after, down in soft blue drifting, you snap out of it and realize you’ve been someplace else. A special someplace only music takes you. You’re different. Changed.
And I watched Deni coming to life again inside Niki when she sang Deni’s words, because Deni was truly inside her now, taking Niki to that place she used to go. I watched Niki over my keyboards, watched the change come down on her, the way her body swayed, then I’d look at Terry and feel this divine thing settle inside me, the same beast I felt when I created Lucy. Terry was the constant, the universal fuck that lived inside this place, this craving penetration that rolled through me. Feel Flows, baby. Brian got it right that time. Shadowy flows.
We went out to the Amphitheater and did a run through concert to an ‘invitation only’ crowd of maybe 1500 people. No nerves, no bad vibes, and we played for two hours straight then just sat on the edge of the stage and watched everyone go nuts. This was Niki’s first taste of that electric adoration, the wall of love that rises up from the other side of the lights and breaks over you, and she started laughing, then crying, and she leaned into me.
“Way to go, babe,” I whispered in her ear.
I knew it then. I knew she loved me now. She was Deni, she was love heroin all wrapped up inside that something new, that something she didn’t quite understand yet. She was becoming music, this creature of the otherworld. She could understand what drew me to Terry now, what made Terry an imperative, and she wanted inside that part of me now.
She put her arms around me and I sighed, could feel Deni there beside me again, the spring she gave me once.
I hopped down and walked out into the surging crowd, felt the light breaking over me.
I felt immortal, if only for a moment.
I got a couple of bungalows at the BH, put Warren and Michelle in one, their daughters in the other, and Jennie and Tracy came to the house with me and Terry – and Niki.
Jennie was astonished at the change that had come over her big sister, the way she walked barefoot around the house in undies and a t-shirt. The way she draped herself over me when we were down in the studio, when the music came. Jennie couldn’t relate – but Tracy did. I started playing notes and chords with her on my lap, and I could see it taking hold deep inside my child’s mind. She’d be sitting there with her eyes open one moment, then she’d be swaying with eyes closed in a heartbeat, inside the music with me. Jennie watched that going down first in Niki, then inside Tracy, and I think she felt like she’d been on the outside for a long time – and never had a clue what was going on inside, until now.
And Jennie could feel the whole Terry thing now. Terry kept her distance but I insisted she stay within sight of me now at all times. Jennie was starting to freak out but Niki hit her like a missile, took her aside and laid it out for her.
“Terry is his muse, she always will be so don’t fuck with the vibe. You fuck it up and you’ll lose him. Simple as that.”
The thing with Jennie? She knew me, she knew my love for her was real, deeper than deep, but now she was learning my love for her existed in the world outside music, outside that springtime Deni created for me. The place Terry kept me rooted to. There were two of me, and she had one of them, but only one. She’d hated Terry before but after living with us that week she came upon the terms of her surrender. Accept what is or move on. If I lost Terry I’d lose me. I think she sensed that if she left I’d move on, but if I lost Terry I’d be wandering the ruins, lost inside a broken, melting Dali landscape.
You love a musician at your own risk. Feel Flows different here, white hot glistening.
I talked to Terry about Warren and his tongue-tied infatuation and she looked at me.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Shake up his world a little. Michelle’s taking him for granted – she needs, I think, a little jealousy in her life.”
Poor man. When Terry McKay turns on the sex appeal it’s devastating. I told Jennie what was going to go down and to take her mom out shopping – Terry could tell her where to pick up some appropriate lingerie. Surely someone into quantum mechanics could come to terms with simple attraction? Cause and effect? What’s been down a while still needs to come up? Sunrise, sunsets – ya know?
We set up at the coliseum the day before, ran through a few numbers for the media and we began figuring out a real 60s-type happening was blowin’ in the wind, that the event was SRO now with a hundred and thirty thousand tickets sold.
And we announced the new album at the press conference, that copies would be going on sale the day after the concert, but that a special edition would be available at the concert. Karma Kubed, with Niki Clemens handling vocals. Yes, we’ll be playing a few of the new songs at the concert. Yeah, the vibe is right on, it’s felt like we’re channeling Deni…very cool stuff.
We made the news, anyway.
I woke up the day of the concert feeling like pure electricity. I couldn’t keep still, went downstairs and sat in the dark listening to The Beach Boys, trying to focus on their vibe, their quicksilver moons.
I felt her then.
Tracy, my little girl. She stumbled through the dark and found her way to my lap, crawled up and cuddled up beside me, within me, and I held her close, let her inside for a while as I drifted in Brian’s music.
Jennie came down a little later, told me she was going over to the hotel, spend some time with her parents and that she’d see me at the Coliseum.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you too, babe. Seeya there.”
She left me with Terry, who’d found this outrageous jade colored lingerie down on Hollywood Boulevard. Oh…did we make some outrageous music that afternoon…and she promised to sit front row center so I’d be able to focus on her during the show.
I’d had Shelly send tickets down to Jenn and her family in Newport, and while I doubted they’d show I had my hopes. Their seats would put them next to Tracy and Jennie and my family, right behind Terry and Shelly.
I was in another place by the time we met up with Carlos and Jerry. Niki and Pete were too, but Niki was freaking out. “A hundred and thirty seven thousand people?! This is fuckin’ nuts…” she cried as she circled like a cornered animal. “I can’t fuckin’ do this…I’m scared out of my mind…”
I could see all the classic signs, so I sat down with her, gave her the talk.
“You’re not going to be able to see anything but lights,” I said. “You can’t tell if there are fifty people out there, or fifty million. You’ll hear them, yeah, but just close your eyes, let the music in, let it take you where it always takes you. Give it five minutes and you’re home free, but if it gets to you just come over to, sing to me, sing into my eyes. I’m here for you, okay?”
I held her close, then Warren came inside the tent backstage and took over. A British group, 10cc, were warming up the crowd, and their I’m Not In Love was bringing down the house, then the lights went up and they left the stage.
A stagehand came in, announced “ten minutes!”
Carlos was in the zone, Jerry was standing in a corner, his eyes closed as he played through the toughest riffs in his mind’s eye. Warren left and Niki came over, melted into me, and I could feel her trembling through my own ragged heartbeat.
So I leaned into her and kissed her. Not a brotherly kiss, if you know what I mean. A curl your toes kiss, and she responded in kind, looked at me after like I’d just lit a fuse inside her guts – and she slipped into the zone after that and never once looked back. I’d just become her muse, for better or worse, but that’s the way these things go. We knew the score, didn’t we?
I walked out first and the roar was literally deafening. I felt it through the stage as I walked within the spotlight, as I walked up to my keyboards, then Carlos and Jerry came out and the crowd turned into sustained thunder. When Pete and Niki came out I had to slip on my headphones, then I looked down at Terry, looked at her jade dress and jade stockings and I smiled, then I looked at Tracy and Jennie and blew them a kiss, ignoring the empty seats where Jenn and her pops ought to be. The I raised my fist – and stepped into the light.
The next morning’s papers said we were flawless, and I don’t know, maybe we were. What I’ll carry with me was Deni, the song, the music. The way Niki came to me then, singing my life, singing her way into my soul. I looked at Jennie and Terry, saw their tears, then I saw almost everyone was crying, even a few of the cops standing by the stage. Whatever it was, that song took all of us back to 1968 – and made us reexamine our lives in the shattered light of her death. I played an extended interval, took the music ever downward, fluttering down to deepest octaves as Deni’s jet might have, as Deni might have while she watched her death unfolding, and Niki came up from behind, put her arms around me while I played, and I felt her leaning against me, crying, and when she stepped back into the light everyone saw what had happened to her and I felt this huge outpouring of love, pure love, the love only music conveys as it washed over our shores.
The rest was, literally, all a blur. One long blur of memory. One of Deni’s first anthems, Tiger’s Eye, pulled me in so deeply…I was in the purple paisley house adrift in a sea of patchouli again, watching her watch my hands as I played the first version of the entry. How she changed the phrasing of her words to reinforce my rolling chords, and I watched Niki watching my hands, forcing rhythm changes of her own – and it was like the three of us were out there, together, creating something new out of the past.
And I’d look from Jennie to Terry, my two touchstones, each representing polar extremes so far apart it was funny, each so intimately tied to my soul it was unnerving. Terry in her stockings, Jennie with my daughter, already showing as our first composition took form in her womb. Then I was in a limo headed for an after-concert bash at The Bistro, Jerry and Carlos still in the zone as the Lincoln fought through traffic – Niki leaning into me, biting my neck, almost purring with Deni’s lust now coursing through her veins. Drinks and dinner, family and friends, big-wigs from the studio – along with their wives and kids, teenaged girls who told me they wanted to suck something and I’m like really? Get a life, and get away from me, you might be contagious.
The Fillmore was real. You could smell us up there onstage because we were in a room smaller than a basketball court. The Coliseum wasn’t real, it was spectacle. We weren’t musicians, we were being pawned off as demigods while venues like the Fillmore were disappearing into commercial oblivion. Politics in music was being reordered to fit into the marketplace, so political messaging was on it’s way out at the big studios, which only meant emerging groups would flock to small, local studios and politics in music would become regional, local, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. But what would happen if ‘main street’ music became a commercial avenue?
That’s what I watched taking form that night. San Francisco nights giving way to LA glitz. What had been real was going to be trivialized, and I knew I had to get away from it or I’d die a slow, meaningless death.
Jennie and Tracy came by, took one look at the scene and disappeared. Niki remained glued to me, started holding my hand, then wrapping her arms in mine, becoming more possessive by the minute – Terry and Shelly looked on with wry smiles, while Carlos shook his head. Warren finally rescued me, took her back to the hotel and I left with Terry a few minutes later, but we drove out to Malibu and I parked down by the beach, carried her out to the sand and set her down gently while I laid out a blanket. I ate my way into her for hours, until her trembling became too much, then she finished me off and we lay there, listening to the surf while the light faded and my world returned.
She’d watched me at The Bistro, she knew the score. If she was my muse, if she made the music real, what happened when I turned away from music?
“Are we over?” she asked.
“We’ll never be over, Terry. We’ll never stop making music.”
“What comes next?”
“Tracy. The next part of the symphony is all her.”
“What about me?”
“You know, Terry, sometimes I can go a few months without you, but I start to fall apart if we’re apart much longer than that. We’ll work around that.”
“What about Jennie?”
“I won’t sacrifice you for her. She either accepts what is, or…”
“No. That’s not right, Aaron. You can’t push that on her.”
“And I can’t live without you. Simple as that.”
“No, it’s not that simple. Tracy has Jennie now, they’ve bonded.”
“I won’t give you up, Terry. And don’t make me do that, either.”
“Reading my mind?”
“Look, all I know is we’ll end up together, you and I, at the end. But between now and then? I won’t live without you in my life.”
“You know, in a couple of years I’ll be getting ‘old lady’ roles, if I get any at all, and all my leading men will have white hair. It happens to all of us, I guess.”
“And won’t I have white hair too.”
“And I’ll still love you, won’t I?”
“I’ll always love you. I’ll always need you. And I’ll always want you.”
“Unless I get fat.”
“Don’t get fat.”
“Oh, alright,” she sighed. “God, you’re so high maintenance!”
“And you’re the most beautiful woman in the world. You’ve got to take care of that.”
“What about Niki? You started something last night, you know?”
“I did, on purpose. She had to grow beyond herself last night, see the next part of her career. I helped that along. And I’ll have to help her the next few steps along the road, get her up and on her own two feet. Then she’ll be okay.”
“What if she falls in love with you?”
“She already has,” I sighed.
“Complicated, isn’t it? I have a theory, though. Those deep mid-west roots will kick in, she’ll run home and get married to an old beau soon, settle down and have some kids.”
“You think? I don’t know, not after last night.”
“How much you wanna bet?”
“I win, you have to eat me for five hours.”
“And if I win?”
“You have to eat me for five hours.”
“I’ll take that bet.”
“And do you know what I want you to do now?”
“Sun’s coming up in an hour.”
“Then you better get to work…”
So, a few weeks later Tracy and I are on Troubadour, in the marina on St Mary’s Bay, Auckland, and I’m letting her walk along the deck – roped up in a safety harness, mind you – getting her used to the whole boat thing, and Niki is sitting in the cockpit, watching us. Watching me, really, ‘cause she’s got it bad. It wasn’t a week after I got back she flew in, and it wasn’t two hours after she got to our house that Jennie had become annoyed. So…I told Jennie to just chill out, that I’d take care of it. And I did.
I took Niki sailing, again.
She’d been of a mind that sailing was for her, so I just took her out for a nice four day sail, out to the Cape Reinga lighthouse and back. We talked music, we talked babies. We talked about Jennie and Tracy, Jennie and the new baby. About what it meant to be a parent. She wanted kids, too, she told me.
“Have a father in mind?” I asked.
“Oh? And what about Jennie?”
“Nothing. She doesn’t have to know. We fuck until I’m pregnant, then I leave.”
“I’m not all that into guys, Aaron, but I want a baby. And you’ve got the music genes I want.”
“So? What, no love? Just sex, babies and bye-bye?”
“Oh, I love you, Aaron. Maybe not as much as Terry, but I love you.”
“And what about me? If I’m the father, what happens to the kid? Does he know who I am?”
“Yup. And Aaron, that’s kids. Not kid. As in plural, not singular.”
“And what’s that do to Jennie?”
“Well, for one thing, all these kids will be related – to you. We’ll all be, in a way, your wives, and they’ll be brothers and sisters, not cousins.”
“You do know I’m not a Mormon? And that this whole conversation is getting weird?”
“Yeah? So? This is what I came down here for.”
“To get pregnant? For me to get you pregnant?”
“You know, I’ve never had sex with someone I didn’t love.”
“So? Fall in love with me – again.”
“Yeah, when we did Deni the first time I could feel you falling in love with me. It was real then, it’ll be real tomorrow. And I’ll have your kids, so you’ll love me all that much more.”
“You’ve got this figured out, don’t you?”
“And this is what you want?”
“And you love me?”
“More than you’ll ever know.”
“You know why. Everything you’ve done for me. Before you, the only thing a guy ever gave me was a Dilly Bar at a Dairy Queen. You gave me a life, and so much more. You’re my husband, whether you want to be, or not. And I’m all you’ve got left of Deni.”
She wasn’t a colossal fuck, but then again, neither was Jennie. Neither got anywhere near Terry on the Lust-o-meter, but Niki could hold her own and I enjoyed being inside her, the feeling of reproductive urges being met, and satisfied. By the time we made it back to St Mary’s I’d pumped about two quarts into her motor, and if that didn’t do the job I didn’t know what would.
She bought a little place in town, a three bedroom house, and when Jennie seemed put out by that I told her she didn’t need to worry; as far as I could tell Niki wasn’t into guys…
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She told me she’s not into guys, okay?”
“You mean she’s a…?”
“Hey, I didn’t go there…”
Which seemed to put an end to that – for the time being, anyway.
And so, there we were, down on Troubadour. Tracy walking the deck and me holding on for dear life, with Niki in the cockpit staring at my ass – or so she said – and when we came back to sit in the shade for a while Niki leaned over and said something along the lines of “I’m late.”
“Oh? How long?”
I shrugged. “That doesn’t mean a thing.”
“I know, but I feel it.”
“That means something.”
She grinned. “I know, Papa.”
A week later, she knew. She returned to the States, began planning for a life in New Zealand. I began dreaming of a life away from women, then remembered I had a little girl who needed a father, and another who’d join us in four months. Yes, we knew now we had another girl coming and all of a sudden it looked like the very idea of sailing away was about to be buried under a pile of soiled diapers.
Then Shelly called. Thank God.
MCA wanted to know if…
“I’ll be on the next flight up.”
And I sat on a DC-10 thinking about diapers. Cause and effect, ya know. You use it often enough and odds are you’re going to make babies. Trouble is, I knew now, I didn’t want a bunch of babies. I wanted to be on Troubadour. I didn’t want responsibility. I didn’t want to take care of any lives beyond my own, and possibly Terry. And Terry was this self-contained fuck machine whose only interest seemed to be getting me off then disappearing into the woodwork. She was, I realized, every man’s ideal playmate, and she was mine. When I wanted her. If not, just get on a plane and fly away. Come back in a few months when I needed to get laid without any head trips.
But that’s not how it works, Bucko.
You fuck someone you love, you have kids you love and you get them going down the road to finding love. You don’t find a girl and make her your pretend wife. You don’t fuck a girl and leave her in a funny farm, take her kid and then sail away, leaving all these kids with the pretend wife. Now the pretend wife’s big sister was carrying my baby too. No strings attached – “Just get me pregnant!” – and she’ll take care of the rest.
But what was Berkeley really all about?
Wasn’t it ‘Freedom!’
Free speech. Free love. Open marriages. Like hummingbirds flying from flower to flower, dipping our wicks into each new golden honey pot, depositing our seed and moving on, flying to the next flower, falling in love for a half hour then flying out the window. Who knows what I left behind?
MCA wanted me to produce Niki’s first real album.
Niki had flown straight to LA, flown to see Shelly, flown to get me to come back to LA. Flown to set her own trap. Trap the hummingbird, cage him, stop him from flying away again. I saw myself flying over the Pacific, my wings growing tired as I flew from flower to flower, then flying into a new house, Niki slamming the windows shut behind me, trapping me. Then diapers everywhere. Little white surrender flags covered in shit, and out the window, in the distance, a boat, sailing away. I’m hovering on the wrong side of the glass, trying to find a way back out to Freedom, but Freedom was the trap, wasn’t it?
No, I had freedom and it trapped me.
Is freedom supposed to work like that?
What is Freedom? Why was Freedom a trap?
Someone was pushing on me and I woke up, saw downtown LA out the window, looked up and saw a stewardess telling me to get my seatback up and I shook the dream away – but it didn’t want to leave just yet. Like a bad aftertaste this dream was lingering, telling me to wake up before it was too late.
I looked out the window, saw the ground reaching up for me, saw Century City off in the distance. Home. I was home again. Terry would be home. Terry, with her silk legs opening to receive my seed, then flying from window to window, trying to find my way back to Freedom. Always these circles, nipping at the heels.
She was wearing the deepest blue, blue – like her eyes.
Shocking electric blue lingerie. And she was so beautiful sprawled out on the bed, my cum on her face. My sweat mingling with hers.
“God, I’ve missed you,” she whispered.
“I can’t keep doing this, Terry,” I cried. I can’t keep leaving you, wanting you and not having you. It’s going to kill me, and I’m afraid it might kill you too.”
“What’s happened, Aaron?”
I told her about Niki and she smiled.
“So, you think she wants to trap you?”
“What else could it be?”
“Hormones. Hormonally induced insecurity. She wants to be loved right now, to be spoon fed love until that baby comes, but by then she won’t have any left to give you.”
“What should I do?”
“Give me your cock.”
And she worked me back to life – and I fell inside her again, like Lucifer falling through the clouds. Her physical perfection was all that I craved, her seared emotional landscape the only place left where life made any kind of sense. Her blue silk cradling my face, licking the sides of her feet while I arced into her, electric need spilling between us in endless electron flows, and when the trembling began again I turned to pure, solid spasm and yes, my seed drifted within her honey – again.
Her hands on my face, she is licking me. Her legs have wrapped around me and she is pulling me inward again. I am on my hands, over her now, breathing hard, sweat falling again and all I feel is this liquid warmth between us. My spreading seed, her encasing flows all mingling now. Her hands coaxing me down, my lips to hers, all warm breath as tongues join, as I feel my skin so perfectly mated to hers. We fit. Together. Perfectly.
She is moving under me again, trembling anew. I feel it in her thighs, then inside her, and she has hands inside her womb milking me. Something inside grasping me, pulling me, forcing every drop of need from my body – into hers.
“I love you so,” she whispers.
I am shaking my head, now totally aware there is only one woman I’ll ever truly love, and she is here, under me, and I feel so ashamed. A deceiver. Only the one person I deceived the most is me. My deceptions have led these other women on, onward into unjustified hope. Maybe I would burn in Hell if only I believed in such things, but for now I would burn inside Terry McKay – and let the rest of the world look away. They could burn without me now – just please, leave me inside Terry.
“I can’t spend another day without you by my side,” I said.
– And she looked away.
A telling look. Like the kind that makes you think about the handwriting on the wall.
“I’ve met someone, Aaron. I’m leaving soon, for England. I may not be back, as a matter of fact.”
“Really? What was this, then? My goodbye fuck?”
“No, I love you, but I wasn’t sure I could go on like this. So I, well, I started to look for options.”
“And you’ve found one?”
“I think so.”
“It’s what you want?”
“No, it isn’t. Not really.”
“But you’re going to anyway?”
“Yes, I think so. Because I think it’s what you need, too. Get me out of your system, put these dalliances out reach, someplace where you can’t easily get to them. Take care of Jennie and Tracy – and Niki, too.”
“Maybe you weren’t listening just now. You know, the part where I said I can’t live without you?”
“You can. And you will.”
“So, marry me, Terry. Stay with me. Let’s finish this thing together. See where life takes us, you and me.”
She shook her head, smiled at me. “I’ve got to let you grow up now, Aaron. Let you live up to the burden of your responsibilities. These are your children, Aaron, not mine, and not ours. You’re going to have to face that. That you are a father now. That people depend on you.”
“And then what? I die inside – I die every day we’re apart?”
“You raise your kids. You give them all the love I know you can. You teach them music, you teach them to paint. You love Jennie, maybe not like you love me, but you love her. You be a mensch, not a nobody.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Aaron? If you need me, as a friend, I’ll be there.”
I shook my head, looked at her like she’d just knifed me in the gut, then I stood, held out my hand and helped her up. We held hands as we walked to the shower, and I bathed her, now trying to program the feel of her through our wet skin. While she dresses I notice all her clothes are gone from her closet, and I know she’ll be leaving soon. While I’m drying off I hear the phone and go to take the call, and it’s Shelly.
“So, you’re in?”
“Meeting at MCA, ten in the morning. Iron out the contract. I think I got you good terms.”
“How’d you make out from the concert?”
“So, I made some money too?”
“You didn’t get me statement?”
“I’ll bring it along with me tomorrow, but you did well, Aaron. Pops would be proud.”
“So, where’s Niki?”
“At the Beverly Hills. Registered as Rooster Cogburn, if you want to call.”
“Yeah. Original, isn’t it?”
“Right. Well, I’ll see you in the morning.”
When I turned around Terry was nowhere to be seen. Her car was gone, too, and the only thing she’d left was her lingerie and heels. I went to the kitchen and got a Baggie and put her things in the bag and sealed it shut, then walked around the house, looking at her life – and Pop’s – spread out around the house. The place was, I saw, more a museum now that any kind of home, and I walked down to the studio, now wide awake despite the hour. I looked at the studio and my keyboards, then the phone rang and I walked over and picked it up.
“You’re going to be okay,” Terry said.
“The spare key to my car is on the kitchen table; it’s parked in the garage opposite International Departures, building 7, third floor, space C79. Do you have something to write with?”
She read out her phone number, where she’d be in London, and I committed the number to memory. “If that changes, I’ll leave word with Shelly.”
“Aaron? Don’t ever think I did this because I’ve fallen out of love with you. I haven’t. I can’t. But we can’t go on like this, can we?”
“Marry me, Terry. Stay with me.”
“Call me in a few months. Do the right thing, Aaron. Not for me, but for us.”
Then the line went dead and I sighed, looked at the numbers on the paper like they were a lifeline, and I sat down and looked around my studio.
I’d be bringing this room back to life tomorrow, but could I – without Terry?
What could I do without her?
I sat in the near dark thinking about what she really meant to me, and I knew she was right. Life would go on. I would write music without her. Good music. Maybe not great, but we’d see.
Then the phone rang again and I snatched it up: “Hello?”
“It’s me. Niki. Are you still up?”
“I slept on the plane.”
“Could I come over?”
“Sure. Door’s open, I’m downstairs.”
“Is it close enough? Could I walk?”
“You could, but it’s not something I’d recommend at three in the morning, not it LA.”
“Don’t you have a car there?”
“No. Terry left it at the airport – I’ve got to run out and get it.”
“Sounds that way.”
“I’ll be right there,” she said, hanging up the phone.
And sure enough, I heard the front door shut about ten minutes later, then heard her coming down the stairs and into the studio. I was still sitting, inert, in the darkness. Still thinking about life after Terry – and she came right to me and sat, took me in her arms and cradled me.
I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I felt too burned up inside for tears, for much of anything, but Niki got that…
“How’s the baby?” I asked after a bit.
“You been writing any songs?”
“I tried, but I’m not sure I know how, really. I think I’ll rely on you this time out. Maybe teach me the basics, how you go about it.”
“Got any lyrics yet?”
“Yeah. Ten songs I think are okay. A few that aren’t.”
“Oh? We’ll look at those first. Got ‘em with you?”
“I brought everything with me.”
“I wanted…could I move in with you?”
I thought for a minute, then nodded my head. “Yeah, sure.”
Terry was right. Niki was insecure. She needed love. And in the end, I was sure there’d be nothing left for me – but what the fuck, ya know? What the fuck.
I tried to pretend Niki was Terry, that Niki could be my muse, but the energy was different. Not wrong, but different. Niki was a hot, wet towel draped over my face, suffocating, maybe, after the initial surge of comfort. Her lyrics were inconsequential, too, mid-western white bread. Empty love songs, all longing without purpose.
She liked country music, the real old southern country stuff, and she liked rock, but she was trying to blend the two without any idea of the structure she wanted. Creating something new out of the two forms was going to be tricky at best, because country music wasn’t structured like rock. Because there was a fairly generous antipathy between Southern Country and the rest of the music world. Yet that’s where she wanted to go.
So it would have to be soft-rock infused country music, a commercialized amalgam of styles I’d never tried before. I wasn’t even sure why she wanted me to help her with this, as there were others who could take her into these uncharted waters a lot better than I. Still, she liked to curl up on the bed, and she even got into the whole lingerie and heels thing too, which was odd. Like she wanted to be Terry McKay, but could never be. She wanted to be sexy, and she tried to be without ever realizing that sexy is not something you can try to be. You either are or you are not, and she wasn’t.
And that was a problem, too. She wanted to project sex in her album, which meant photoshoots for the album art would have to project sex, but who the devil thought sex would appeal to a Southern Country audience?
Well, color me wrong.
MCA hired a photographer who normally shot the wide open spaces for the likes of Penthouse, and with makeup artists in tow they worked for two days getting just the right look. Kind of Nashville’s idea of a cowboy’s hooker from hell, with no pubes or nipples and just a little symbolism to placate the Baptist set, the image reflected what I thought would be the best song of the lot, a mushy ballad called Rocking Chair. The engineers thought my Mellotrons and Moogs sounded a little too insincere so I yanked those out and inserted a seventy piece orchestra into the mix, to the tune of about 20 grand at union scales, but it sounded nice. When the single of Rocking Chair was sent to country stations around LA for a tryout it shot to number one in two days.
Then Jennie called.
“You ever coming home?”
“Yeah. We should wrap it up inside a week.”
“She’s gone. Left for London, for good.”
A long pause followed, then: “How’s Niki?”
“She’s not Terry, so don’t worry.”
“She told Dad she’s pregnant. Any idea who the father is?”
“Nope. But nothing would surprise me. She’s gotten kinda popular out here.”
“What are you doing…for company?”
“Waiting to get back home.”
“Yeah? You? Playing it all faithful?”
“Am I that bad?”
She laughed. “Aaron, you’re a four-wheel drive cock – in overdrive. Always on the go.”
I laughed at that. “Wow. Now that’s an image.”
“I don’t know why I love you, but I do?”
“Yeah? Well, I love you, and I know why.”
“Oh, yeah? Why?”
“I’ll show you when I get home.”
“Eating like a horse. Asking about you.”
“Yeah. She needs her daddy.”
“I need her, too. How’s the spud?”
“She’s kicking a lot. I think she wants to get out, go for a walk on the beach.”
“Maybe I should get a bigger house, one I could put a studio in, ya know?”
“If that means you stay here more, I’m all for it.”
“This stuff with Niki might take off. Her first single is going to be big.”
“This is exciting…!”
“Unexpected, but I think we make an interesting team. Kind of like Electric Karma meets Hank Williams, Jr.”
She laughed again. “Oh, gawd…”
“Yeah, driving me nuts. Deni would kill me, but it’s a challenge, in a good way. Stepping outside my comfort zone…learning a lot.”
And I was. That was the funny thing about it. Even the western musicians who came over to the studio had something to teach, and they learned stuff from me, too. Because in the end we were musicians, just trying to tell the stories, ya know?
Once we wrapped up the sessions we sent the tapes over to Burbank and waited for the word, and Niki went seriously Terry on me, nasty lingerie and nastier talk, and that night the L-word started slipping into her conversation more and more. I guess it had to happen. The thing is, I was starting to have real feelings for her too. I was gentle with her that night, like I didn’t want to give the baby a rough ride, but I felt a tenderness towards her I hadn’t felt before, too. The way I held her face, kissed her. The way she took me in her mouth, the way she hungrily told me she wanted it all. The way she swallowed, then looked up at me.
The guys at MCA were effusive the next morning, and there was talk of a concert deal.
“Count me out, guys,” I said. “I’ve got kids to take care of.”
So yeah, a studio musician could take my place on the road, no big deal, but with Niki starting to show concerts weren’t what she needed to be setting out to do.
“Maybe after the baby,” she said, and the studio reluctantly agreed.
So, I picked up the house, called an interior decorator and when the gal came over I told her I wanted the house redone, completely – “Just leave my studio functionally alone,” then Niki and I packed up and left for Auckland.
Jennie knew, of course. I don’t know how, maybe Niki told her, but no doubt she could see it in her sister’s eyes, too. Yet it didn’t seem to make a difference. I was back in the same bedroom with her and that was all that seemed to matter. I found a nice place on Mellons Bay and started work on a bigger studio, met with an architect to get the project going, met with a musician’s group and a few local politicians, outlined plans for a few new albums to see if I’d have community support, then I turned my attention to Troubadour.
She’d been neglected and it showed, but the damage was cosmetic and easily fixed. I started taking Tracy out several times a week, getting her used to the motion, and Jennie asked if she could come and I was adamant: not until after the baby. Same with Niki, for that matter.
Michelle was born that autumn, well, it was spring down there, and with her mother’s reddish-blond curls she was gorgeous, a real green eyed lady. Granma Michelle came down to spend a month with us, and that turned to four months – but only because the weather was so damn nice. Uh-huh, right.
But Granma Michelle was also the one to pick up on the Niki vibe. She was lady enough to not ask about it, but I could see the awareness in her eyes. I was also the one behind her oldest daughter’s sudden stardom, her debut album shooting up the country charts and earning her daughter some serious money, so maybe she didn’t want to rock the boat, or maybe she just didn’t understand – whatever – she was polite to me, but that was all. And that was enough, for me. I couldn’t help who I was any more than I could stop Niki or Jennie from feeling about me the way they did, and everyone was copacetic about things so there wasn’t any point in rocking the boat, was there?
In the end, I was father to all their grandkids but Tracy, yet they considered Tracy their’s too.
Which brings us full circle, to Jenn. Poor Jenn.
Her father had a massive heart, a few days after she was released from her psychiatric hospital, and I think, from what I was able to gather from news reports, she finally broke him down and tore him apart. That was the official version, anyway. So yeah, then I got a call from Shelly late at night, and she told me that I needed to come up to LA on the double, and that it had something to do with Jenn.
“Should I bring Tracy?”
“Not this time,” Shelly said – cautiously.
“You mean, like I need to run to the airport right now?”
“Now would be good.”
She picked me up at the airport and we drove down to Newport Beach in near silence.
“What happened, Shelly?”
“Jenn, well, she shot her father.”
“She – what?”
“Right in the main pump. He dropped to the ground, dead as a doornail. Her mother watched it go down, then ran out of the house. Jenn’s in the ER, doped up and out of it, but she asked to see you. Won’t talked to the police until she talks to you first.”
“You got it.”
So I shut up the rest of the drive, tried to ignore the heavy traffic on the 405 – at two in the morning – and by the time we got to the hospital, and to the room where she was “under observation” – I was really in a funk.
She shot him? I kept to myself saying over and over.
A detective was there, waiting, and he went in with us after I’d been searched for weapons and drugs. Jenn was wide-eyed, staring out the window at Newport Harbor, and she turned to me, slowly, when we came in.
Her hands were cuffed to the bed, her eyes bloodshot, like angry red pools of blood.
“I wasn’t going to let him hurt me anymore,” she said. “Not again.”
I pulled a chair up to her bed, took her hand. “I know. Something had to give, didn’t it?”
“He kept talking about getting Tracy back. So he could love her the way he had loved me. I couldn’t let him do it, Aaron.”
The detective leaned over. “The way he loved you? How was that, Miss?”
Jenn ignored the cop, just looked into my eyes.
“Jenn, you’ve got to tell someone. No one understands. You’ve got to tell me, at least…”
“He wanted to fuck her like he used to fuck me.”
“When did he start doing that to you, Jenn?” I asked.
“Always. He did it as far back as I can remember…”
We talked about it some more, but really, what was the point. That was what she wanted me to know. Then I asked her one more question: “What do you want me to tell Tracy?”
“Don’t tell her about me. She’ll never remember, anyway, but don’t you ever tell her about me. I don’t want anyone to remember me like this…”
“Look, if you change your mind, want to see her…”
“No!” she screamed. “Go away – now! I don’t ever want to see you again…”
Newport Beach’s finest escorted me from the room, and I talked with the detective for a while, and besides learning he was an Electric Karma fan I told him about all I knew, and about the custody hearing a few years back, and that was that. Shelly drove me back to Foothill Road, and after I got my bags out of the trunk I walked around to thank her, then walked up to the house.
Lights were on, music was playing gently in the background and I turned, looked at Shelly. She looked at me and smiled, then drove off.
The door was open so I walked in, followed the music to the bedroom, found Terry laying there in her latex catsuit, a minor bullwhip already in hand, ready for the next performance. We did not come up for air for days.
We went to Gladstone’s for soup and shrimp when we finally emerged. She’d had enough of London, she told me. Enough of life without me. Without California, too. When Shelly called and told her about Jenn she called British Caledonian and was on her way. I didn’t ask any other questions, just told her I was happy to have her back in my life. Because I was. I called Jennie, told her what had happened, and that I’d hang around here to finish up work on the house, be back in Auckland as soon as I could. But yeah, the work was done, the house looked cool and the bedroom serene, but we didn’t get out of the room much after that. We lived in a state of pure fuck, pure, nonstop fuck, like two shipwrecked people just plucked from their deserted island and turned loose on a Sunday brunch buffet.
“Should I stay here?” she asked me at one point. “Or should I go to Moorea?”
“You’re Commonwealth. Come to Auckland.”
And so began the most exhilarating time of my life.
The next seven years were astonishing. Raising kids, and I do mean kids, as Jennie and I had Rebecca two years after Michelle, and after Niki gave birth to Deni – and yeah, I know, but it had to happen – I gave her Victoria. I took the girls sailing together all the time, the babies and their mothers, and when I wasn’t tied up with them Terry tied me up. I was surrounded every waking moment by three women who loved me completely, and then I had five girls whom I doted on – completely. Niki and I produced three more albums in that span, each better received than the one before, and, near the end of that time Jennie decided she might try for her MD.
Then all sorts of things started turning sour.
The first? Warren, working at the clinic on Moorea, simply stood up from a chair and clutched his chest, said “Oh, my,” on his way to the floor – and he was gone. Just like that. Except he was with me and Tracy when that happened. I called Jennie, in Auckland, and she hopped on a flight to Papeete with Niki and the girls. Michelle was devastated, and even Terry was, too.
I was left to settle Warren’s affairs, and he declared he wanted a chapel built on the island, and he’d left funds to make it happen. No one was surprised how many lives he’d touched, or by how many who came to the dedication of the chapel, but his ashes were interred there, as I mentioned earlier, and everyone was there for the service – even Terry, who Warren fantasized about ‘til the end.
A year later Jennie found a lump in her left breast, and lets just say treatments were not as effective in the early 80s as they are now. She fought it for a little over a year and everyone was with her at the end, but she wasn’t ready and she fought it. I didn’t know you could fight death like that, not like the way she did. She was scared, and angry, said it wasn’t her time, then she screamed and literally started to pass, then crawled back to life, only to get hysterical and start the struggle again. That lasted a day and it was horrifying to watch, but in the end it didn’t make any difference, and we carried her ashes to Moorea to rest with her father’s.
The girls, all of them, were as shattered as I by her passing, but what left me reeling was the thought that we never got to finish our trip together. On Troubadour. And yet she was still sitting down there on the water, waiting for my return. Then I heard that Jenn had finally succeeded, in a psychiatric prison. I didn’t hear how she did it, only that she had finally succeeded, and I was left to reconcile the two of them, my two Jennifers. One doomed to a life of hell, the other doomed to a life too short. One who’d had too much, too soon, and one who’d never get enough – linked to Tracy now and forever.
And so it was Tracy who first went to sea with me, to finish Jennie’s voyage. We sailed up to Moorea, then to Hawaii, when she was nine years old when we started out together, and she was already a good sailor. Michelle was next. She wanted to see Japan, the temples and castles around Kyoto, and we spent a year on Troubadour exploring the Sea of Japan. She dove with the Ama and we walked mountain trails alive with cherry blossoms, and we took hundreds of pictures of temples. When we got back to Auckland we started painting everything we remembered. Rebecca was next, and we sailed from Japan north to Alaska, then down the coast of North America, to Newport Beach, and Troubadour had a homecoming there. I re-powered her there, replaced her rigging and sails, then Michelle joined us and we sailed her back along the track of our original voyage, from San Diego to Nuku Hiva, Papeete and Auckland.
I thought about selling Troubadour then, but Niki wanted her girls to experience life at sea, with me, so Deni and Victoria and I set sail for Australia when they were 14 and 11, then we pushed on to Cape Town, South Africa, before getting on the conveyor ride back to New Zealand. Niki wanted to take a trip with me, so we sailed up to Moorea and visited her father and Jennie in their garden. She flew home and I sailed away. It wasn’t long until Victoria left for college, and I, now in my mid-fifties, Terry in her late sixties, decided it was time to fly to London and get married.
And she still cleaned my clock, her love still left me breathless and feeling more alive than was humanly possible. We left London and returned to LA, and we decided it was time to put the place in New Zealand on the market, and that was one of the last projects Shelly oversaw for me. She passed a year after the house sold, a year after Terry and I set sail from Auckland, two drifters headed out, outbound to see the world. My huckleberry friend.
We sailed from Auckland to Australia, she and I, then on to the Yemen. We transited the Suez, sailed to Greece, then Sardinia. She turned 70 in Porto, on Corsica, and we made it on the beach – for the first time in our lives without lingerie. We stopped in Gibraltar, spend a week there getting some skin cancers cut out, then we crossed to the BVI and, eventually, two years later, we transited the Panama Canal and sailed to Hawaii, technically completing a circumnavigation somewhere along the way.
Terry fell in Honolulu, hurt her hip so we flew home to LA and I let her recuperate for a year while I wrote my first serious classical work. I filed it away for posterity when it was done, for after I was gone. Maybe someone would play it someday, but that would be for the girls to decide, not me. I did write one more Electric Karma album, and I called it Troubadour. The last of the San Francisco clan came to the house and we worked on it for three months, then Niki came and filled in the vocals, with Deni helping – everything coming full circle on the master recording.
Troubadour fell into disuse again, languished in Hawaii for two years before I returned to her and worked her over one last time. When she was perfect again I left, alone this time, for a last voyage to California.
As Jenn and her father once had, I arced north towards Alaska, then cut east for Vancouver and picked up the currents that pulled me home. I bypassed Seattle and made for the Golden Gate, spent a week walking Berkeley, found Deni’s purple paisley house had been painted an olive green that made it look vaguely military, and had to laugh at that. I walked around, tried to find some of the places we haunted, but like the Fillmore everything was gone. Troubadour and I went outside again a few days later and we turned south, bound for Santa Barbara and, finally, Avalon.
Off the casino, in that shockingly blue water, it felt like a spring day fifty years gone. LA in the distance, still lost under a blanket of brown haze. Sparkling sunlight dancing on the water, a few dozen sailboats at anchor with a cool breeze blowing out from Long Beach. The hand on the outboard’s tiller is mine but I don’t recognize the skin on those fingers, but that’s about the only thing I can see that’s changed.
Even Troubadour looks unchanged. The same white hull, the same blue cove stripe, the varnish still gleaming. A few details have changed, to keep up with technology, perhaps, but she looks ready for the next fifty years. And who knows, maybe she is. Maybe she’s in that same petrified forest me and Pops were stuck in, right after he married Terry. I turned away from my feelings, turned away and looked outbound, away from all my yesterdays. I went out looking for a Terry of my own and I found Troubadour instead. Funny how life takes you places you never thought you’d go. Maybe love is the funniest thing there is.
I heard the Grumman fly over the harbor and I turned, watched it line up into the wind and land on the water just off the point, and it taxied into the harbor, pulled up next to the float off the town dock and helping hands tied the seaplane off. A moment later girls started pouring out of the old Goose, my girls, all five of them, and Niki. I came at them through the anchorage and Tracy saw me first. They turned as one, like fish turning in unison, and they waved at me. The children of three women – and me. Sisters…what a thought. All so different – all the same. Mine. All of bound together by our time on Troubadour, by the journeys we shared. By the Time we spent together.
I have a new inflatable now, still too small for all these girls to cram into so as I hopped up on the float, and after we hugged each other to death I turned the Zodiac over to Tracy and let her run three of her sisters out to Troubadour, then come back for the rest of us. She is the oldest and, as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, the steadiest of the girls. Starting her second year of medical school soon; she, of course, plans on going into psychiatry. She leaves, and Deni and Niki and I stand there in the morning sun, breathing in the new day, same as the old day…
“You know,” Niki said, “I’ve never been out here before. Funny how far away LA feels.”
“None of you have,” I said, “but this is where it all started. My love for sailing, my love for Tracy’s mother.” I turned, pointed at an old corner restaurant. “Right there, as a matter of fact, and more than fifty years ago. Time has been kind to this old place. Change never rooted in here.”
“How’s Troubadour?” Deni asked. She was my secret favorite, of course. She was singing, learning to play the guitar now, after mastering the piano by the time she was five. Kind of like her old man, if you know what I mean.
“Kind of like me, Deni. Old, but serviceable.”
We smiled at one another; Niki looked at me and came over, slipped under my arm. Deni came too and we hugged until Tracy made her way back through the anchorage. We loaded up and rode through the morning, lever looking back.
We sailed to Newport Beach, to where Troubadour was born, and I had her hauled. Her hull needed attention now, her gelcoat was tired and cracked, so she was due for a facelift – and maybe another engine, too. It was funny if only because one of the guys who helped build Troubadour was the owner of the yard now, and he remembered me, and Troubadour. We got caught up on her travels and he kind of teared up when he realized what I was telling him. That his hands helped create something so strong and vital, and so important to all of us.
Then we made our way to the Beverly Hills Hotel, to two bungalows out back, and after they were settled in I walked over to the house. Terry was waiting for me, of course. Still the most beautiful woman in the world, she looks half my age now, most people mistake her for fifty. I never fail to get weak in the knees when I come into our room and see her laid out in her lingerie and heels, and today was no different.
I’m going to give Troubadour to the girls tonight, when we meet up for dinner. Shelly drew it up a long time ago, one of the last things she did for me, and I think it only fitting now. They all live in Auckland, have been Kiwis all their lives, and they’ll have to get Troubadour home, somehow, to keep the journey alive, to keep keep me alive in them. To keep reaching, moving outbound, moving into the light, into the music of our lives. I know they’ll begin the journey in Avalon, but of course I wonder what they’ll find out there…?
And I see, in the dimness, that Terry is wearing black tonight, which means that goddamn bullwhip is lurking under the sheets somewhere. Oh…the things we do to keep our women happy…
© 2017 | adrian leverkühn | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com