(1/25/78 - 8/12/13)
I’ve written you this so many times. I’ve started this message so many times in my mind. I wonder if it will be the same as I dream of it when I do.
I’ll out live you anyway
When someone walks into your heart & then has to break out in the night when you're not looking to make a clean getaway, you should know there'll never be anyone else around who could understand what it was in their body & life that helped make you feel like you might matter. What it was that helped make it all matter to you.
We’ll out live you anyway
Jason's death struck me & I felt it so intensely I had a hard time communicating with other people for the following weeks save for speaking of him. I felt the equivalent of the weight I had been thunderstruck by in 2008, when on Election Night we ushered in a black Head of State & lost the first, last, one & only Jaime Ewing.
You’ll outlive me anyway
Jaime had played in so many bands I can’t even remember all of them at times. The most well known was Bent Outta Shape. I had first seen him play in a band called The Lazer when I was 17. He died & I spent the entire funeral in the bathroom or the bar next door. I didn’t cry at all until the very end when my friend Adam Vargas got up & spoke. Adam & Jamie had had a falling out some years before. Still Adam was destroyed by what he had lost, along with what the rest of us had. It was as if through his tears as he spoke that he was realizing at the same time as he was speaking perhaps he was the only one who would ever know the truth, or that part of the truth that he did. “Don’t cry for Jamie, Jamie wasn’t like anyone else here. Because Jamie didn’t dream dreams… He lived them.” I felt like someone had cut my legs off at the knees. Like I’d been bathed in cement. Like my grave had been the one I stepped over drunkenly outside. My heart racing.
my head at the ceiling the water slowly
rising the air that I'm breathing
exhausted and foul-smelling
the bile behind my teeth
the taste of my stomach
feeble and weak
I can't wash it away
On the way to the ceremony, I felt nothing. I hadn’t known Jamie like my friends the Winn brothers. But those two people had known him since they were children. They had become like brothers to me through music & I felt the loss like I was one of their own. My friend Adrien said to me in the car, “You better never make me come to yours.” I felt like dying.
Something sank in me when Adam spoke in the funeral home, something I had never felt in my body or my heart since I was 12 years old. I felt all the resilience & deadness I had built up behind my eyes disappear, & as the veil was pierced, tears rushed in to flood my every membrane, every ounce of me soaked in them. I hadn’t cried in years. And yet here I was doubled over thinking of how three days before Jamie died, I had ridden my bike to a coffee shop on Myrtle Ave near where I lived in Brooklyn, one I had never been to before & had no reason to be in. I was the only person there. As I sat I felt some ghostly pall come over the whole place. Next thing I knew, Jamie was there in the doorway. I hadn’t seen him in over a year.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just waiting for the bus, it’s cold out there.”
He got a coffee & we barely spoke more than goodbye & good seeing you & then he turned to leave & then before he left he looked back at me & tipped me an invisible cap. And smiled. I finished my cup of coffee & went outside to unlock my ride & felt something so I turned around. There was Jamie again, still standing at the bus stop kitty-corner to me, waiting in the cold. This time there was no look between us. Nothing recognized in the other by either one. Instead there was just a brief connection of the eyes & then silence & then both of us turned. I rode away. Months later I started seeing him everywhere. Boys dressed just like him the last time I saw him. On the subway, in the streets, on the bridges as I passed them, turning & nearly crashing every time. And every time I thought to myself:
That’s not him. He’s gone. You’re never gonna see that boy again.
I grappled with this over & over again. Losing someone before I ever knew them. Before I had a chance to play with them. Sing with them. Friends would say I sang like Jason. Jamie & I both played on the same record once. But we never played together. I missed them on this earth.
But this piece isn’t about them. It's about all of us. There was one who helped me learn to transfer my anxiety & fear into transformation. For myself. So I could begin to heal. So I could know what I was put here for with music. This piece is for him. Jason Rosenthal.
don't grow old
this is the last time
I write your name
one thousand times
how can you sleep like a baby?
I had been working since May. All over the place. I’d spent a few weeks in Mexico finishing something I shot the majority of last summer, then flown to LA. From there I rested for a few days & tried to raise money (that the only success of any of my efforts was to be found in the trunk of an outlaw friend’s car on the Venice Boardwalk should be telling, if not scream volumes). I took a train to New Orleans. There I would work for five weeks on something that had been supposed to happen for nearly a year. The intensity & desperation of everything left me feeling like a caged animal. Like something in heat. Like a shell. I dragged myself back to New York.
Finding the place I was living in beyond sustainable when I returned was not something I was ready for. A few calls came through. More work. Very little money. I found myself once again undomiciled in the heartless city of my upbringing & was completely bewildered at the prospect of being jettisoned from yet another crummy apartment. I just wanted someone to reach out & fix everything for me. I wanted someone to illuminate for me the purpose of all of this if they could find it in their heart to. It was like someone was leading me through the dark towards something I couldn’t see. Grasping around desperately in all the blindness reaching for some rope I could feel tethering me by the throat. All these months past & I still don’t know what I was being aimed towards, save for maybe writing this. Perhaps this is that thing. Perhaps this is PURPOSE. Is this what we work for?
Angel, take me under
Be still, wake me next time.
What is it we're running away from?
Why is it we're running?
We have painted ourselves in a corner
Have we done it all for nothing?
Never one for steadiness. Always one for the out of balance. But this time felt different. I felt like everything I tried to do landed me back in the same place. Like this had been happening for years. And what answer lay in the balance? Was there one I could look forward to? Some stranger at the end of this series of chambers & doors who would flip one switch & explain the whole story to me?
I wish that I could take back
every drunken night
tried to stay young
in the womb of a bottle
just keep getting older
& the bottles keep piling up
Either way I was scared & didn’t know how to right the course or stay in the game & not lose my mind in the process. When the chance came to get out of New York for a day or so in some completely bizarre scenario in which I would fly to Martha’s Vineyard for one day in a single prop plane, I took it. You can imagine my desperation that I leapt at the moment’s notice I had to gather my thoughts & things & set out again. I was so petrified I could barely speak after we landed. I would say God only knows what I was thinking, but I’m not even sure of that.
this is me living
this is me breathing
this is me singing
this is me screaming
this is me
A week later I was in Boston. August. Sleeping on my adopted brother’s couch. Wandering the streets during the day. Visiting other family members I hadn’t seen in years. Feeling so foolish every time I had to explain what it was that I did or what I was doing or why no one knew anything about me. Every time I had to keep pretending I knew just what to say. I met my friend at the bus one day when he was passing through town on his way to Maine & we both got very drunk in some horrible bar near Chinatown & eventually came to blows. Time felt like it was rushing by me. Like a wind was at my back pushing me & I couldn’t stop it from catching my sails. I tried to apologize. It didn’t seem to work.
The next morning I got a message. The words didn’t seem to make sense. It was like I had experienced a psychic rift. Some kind of fugue had taken place & I was suddenly forced into the body & life of someone who couldn’t process language. My heart started to pound. I could feel it in my ears. The words blurred. Water in my eyes, fogging up the lenses. But slowly focus began to take shape & the truth I didn’t want to see standing there before me arose from it’s seat in the back of the house & took center stage:
I called everyone I could think of who knew him. No one knew what to tell me. No one knew what to say. My heart was so heavy. Information is never forthcoming quickly enough in situations like this one. When a soldier falls in battle, no one questions whether or not it was an enemy bullet that took him down. They just send in the stretchers. No time for an inquiry in the heat of a firefight. And it doesn’t really mean anything to me that no one knew the answer me as to how did it happen. All I heard were these cold, police report type details of the particulars: His girlfriend found him. He was listening to this certain song. Living half the country away from where I knew him. If it sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. If I sound emotional it’s cause I am. If I sound like I’m fucked up it’s because it fucks me up to say these things at all out loud. To feel this way in the first place. A storm of thoughts was racing through my mind. I tried chasing it, to catch up. If it sounds too personal, that’s something I can’t change. It is.
this is for you
to hold you close
to keep you close to my heart
I’m sorry that I split you open
to keep warm when someone becomes everyone
somewhere becomes anywhere
All I could think of over & over was where it began. I had heard of Jason for a few years before I met him. His band On the Might of Princes was named for a chapter in the Clive Barker novel Weaveworld & just beginning to blow apart the insides of teenagers' minds on Long Island at the same time as I came of age. When The Twin Towers got knocked down, I turned 18 the next day. Tensions running high doesn’t hold a candle to the virulent humors stirred in everyone’s blood during that time, so it makes no mystery that I would be feeling fucked up about the fact that it was obvious our country would end up dropping bombs all over an anonymous land thousands of miles away because of this thing that happened. I remember questioning my mother’s boyfriend’s opinion at my birthday dinner about the wisdom of our leaders & getting thrown against a wall.
this bed that should be a place of warmth
never felt such a chill
And so it was that on some night in September 2001 I attended a benefit at SUNY Stony Brook organized against the Invasion of Afghanistan. There was a video that played before the performance of a Taliban stoning, members of some tribal council tying adulterers into a white sack & hurling rocks at them until the bag turned red. The violence of it was not something I was oblivious to. But at the same time, every nerve I had was so excited about seeing this music happen. So excited for this music I had heard so much of but never actually heard, to be seeing this band finally.
As I write this, I remember it so well it frightens me.
Will I be even a fading memory to the people I’ve known,
as Jason remains such a vivid one to me?
When the band trickled in, they seemed like people I had never known before. They seemed real. Not dressed up in any way meant to clearly advertise how punk they were. And none of them looked the same. In this world of New York & specifically suburban New York punk bands it was more common than not to see a sea of generic, anonymous styles stretched out before you at these types of gatherings. These guys were different. I could tell.
But aside from all of them Jason stood out. He was so slight; his bones visible through the skin of his face & his T-shirt. Like mine. His teeth snaggled, crooked. Like mine. Shorter than most everyone else there. Like me. I was instantly engaged with him from appearance alone. It was like he was sent from some far off place & he had this brutalized look about his countenance. Something heavy as stone weighing down the lines of his face, which while young, never for an instant failed to show the sadness & age of many years, somehow from behind skin & eyes like those of a child. He resembled a little boy still. Like me. I was instantly taken by him. Immediately enwrapped. I could only stare, asking myself, who is that? No sooner had I asked than in turn I was answered.
i'll be right here
to help you sleep (to help me sleep)
to keep you alive (to keep me alive)
to find hope in a smile
against all demons
The room exploded as the music began. Every body in the crowd quaking & moving as if in unison. Frantically clawing their way through each other, fighting for the microphone, climbing over one another to be the one closest to the sound. To be the ones closest to the source of that sound. It was something I watched them riot over like an angry mob or a flash flood. A highly toxic fire consuming everything in its path. Like a corral of wild horses from different bands all scared & rearing awaiting their sale. Like the nostril sounds of the thrush of fear that rushes over a band of horses as the sense of dangers spreads from one to all the others. An alarm sounding. The inciting violence in the sound directly linked to the songs’ delivery, to the band’s movements & energy all tied up in their muscles & hands & fingers, each of their faces gripped with some agonizing infatuation with the music itself, with the content of the songs’ stories. They were electrifying in every literal sense of the word. That is the only word that fits what they were. The sound was like glass breaking or metal sheeting being cut --- caustic & sharp. It wasn’t a performance. It was a rapture.
I’ll try to keep singing
over the telephone ringing
running from the age
I should be embracing
Moments into the first song, I understood everything. Jason’s voice soared so high above the visceral, searing clash of the strings, the thunder of the drums, the tumult & melody never married in such a perfect union before, never so indecipherably entwined. It was as if the sounds themselves weren’t even being created before us at all. Instead they were conjured, summoned, brought forth from those little boxes we call amplifiers like demons coming through the wallpaper, peeling paint off the windows with magic & flame. A spell had been cast. But that voice, that VOICE was so clear through all of it. I could hear him. And he was screaming. I had never seen anyone do what he did. Open up that little jaw of his so wide you could have driven your entire caravan through it & let this sound escape it, like something unleashed & desperately set upon some frenzied message that just had to be delivered. l could have sworn I could see his voice emerge from inside him. A sight to behold.
funny how such a short time
seems like forever
seems like such a short time
That was the first time I saw them play. The first time of many times. I have no way of telling how many now. But I do know that for the better part of that year, I was completely obsessed in every way with that band, this music, and Jason himself. I remember having to sneak away from my father's apartment in the West Village & making up some story about where I was going. Just so I could run across town to Alphabet City, what he called “the jungle” still, to see them play at Brownie’s. And I can recall so clearly what Jason’s hands looked like when he played, what his back looked like when he arched his body over & what his eyes looked like when he sang. He became aware of me following him around somewhere in this time, and was kind enough to let me do it. He would wave to me when he played & I had travelled there to see it. When I called out a song I wanted to hear, he pulled me up to sing it with him.
you might not see again
don’t open yr mouth too wide
it might just freeze like that
I remember his snotty attitude. I remember his jokes. I remember asking him what my favorite song was about & him telling me he didn’t want to talk about it. I remember him playing me a song in our friend Brandon’s Cadillac & saying to me, “Check this out,” & then telling me how the guitar part he indicated was something he planned to steal. And I remember him crying at that show when he sang about his friend dying. Quite simply I thought he was the best. I still feel the same way.
But then here I was in Boston, standing in the middle of an empty baseball field, crying & pleading with my phone to work so I could reach out to someone, anyone who could understand. And it wouldn’t. And I didn’t. I couldn't hear anything but Dissonance. The sound of two sounds clashing. Two sounds at odds with each other. The same type of thing was heard when Jamie left us. Two sounds no longer here & living, once polarizing & still polarizing. No longer here to defend themselves, to speak on their own behalf. I couldn’t help but feel the same would be said about me.
just barely alive
with all the shit that I have to swallow
I remember the last two times I saw Jason. Both were at places I worked in Brooklyn. The first time he was about to leave on tour with his new band The Brass, & he & Jonah Ellis & Michael Campbell all stopped in to the café I countered on 7th ave. He seemed so happy. I remember his smile. The last time I saw him, that band was finished & he stopped into a pizzeria I rode delivery for & he said something about moving to Austin & packing everything in to get the fuck out of New York. I remember he seemed crazed. Fucked. Troubled. And I couldn’t even bring myself to worry. Being so fucked up at the time, I was feeding on myself. I couldn’t see who was in front of me. It was just someone who used to be someone else, just like I was. Just like me.
this is the shit that keeps me up nights
& knocks me unconscious
And then he disappeared. And for the longest time, I would still think of him & play others his music to try & explain this thing I had for him. This thing he gave me. It never worked. In my darkest moments since that week where everything seemed to beg the question what’s the point, what’s the fucking point I’ve wandered all over this country again, like I did so many years ago, run & gunning like a kid again, & I can’t see a place to stay anywhere. I can’t stop thinking about how Jason & Jamie were so loved. People loved them. So vital & worth it. How I’ll never be able to touch what they’ve done. There’ll be no comparison. And I can’t stop wishing they were here instead of me sometimes. I can’t stop wishing I could trade places with them. Either one of them. If I could bring them back I would. In a heartbeat.
if it all came down to it
I’d be with you till the bloody end
I’ll take your secret to the grave
it’s all forgiven
Jonah Ellis wrote these words for a series of short images of Jason performing that was played there:
These are the moments when everything slowed down & whatever thin patina of bullshit we have smeared between our friendships just washed away. Time turns to distance & pulls us forward, away from our brother, away from all of this. But what all of us have done, what we continue to do in the future, speaks, in so many variations, of how dearly we hold onto these individual & collective memories. Love each other. Forgive each other. Just make it count.
I couldn’t be at the memorial. Not because I was afraid. I was stuck. Time doesn’t stop for dead friends. It was the longest day at work I had ever experienced. Walk away have to hold yourself to stop yourself from shaking. To stay straight. Try to forget it long enough to remember what your job is. Look at my phone & see so many missed calls from old friends who were there. Voices & tears I never heard. I sent my brother in my place. He told me he didn’t have the words to describe how it felt being there. I believed him.
And I haven’t been the same since. On an airplane to Los Angeles, on a bus to San Francisco, hitchhiking to Canada, tractor trailer across the Midwest. Nothing made sense. In the South people tell you there’s signs everywhere. But I couldn’t see any.
with all the nightmares
I’m too scared to wake
Is this what we work for?
He left this world on the same day as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Another of the world’s forgotten boys. Another of these heroes of mine who just couldn’t stay. Another ship at storm. How could you stop them from leaving?
Take care of yourself is what people say sometimes when they say goodbye to me. It’s been this way since I can remember. But that’s the thing about this world: it doesn’t take care of you. You can only be so careful. You can never know the answer. It’s not written on the backs of any of these cards we might get dealt, flip them over as we may. It’s blank on the other side. It’s always someone’s girlfriend or wife or friend who finds them & they’re always going to have been playing one last song when they die & the last time you saw him is always going to be the last time you saw him & nothing brings anybody back not even music, not even a memory or an image. The last song he played will always be his last song, no matter what surfaces later, no matter what can be dug up. Any song of his, be it unearthed or remain submerged & thus forgotten, it doesn’t change a thing. It doesn't change what we knew about him. He’s gone. The last words are just that. Last looks. Curtain.
fuck like we've run from your hands so long
that wings might rip right through your back
They say you die alone just like you’re born. I can’t help think of Jason in his house in Texas, falling. I can’t help but wish I had been there to catch him. To help him up. Help him breathe. Help him live through it like he helped me live through so much. I wondered if he had had to be alone in those final moments. The same thing I wondered with Jamie. If it could have helped their departing from this world to know that someone was there next to them in those moments, that they were not alone there & then. If looking in another set of eyes one last time would have meant as much to them as looking in their eyes one last time would have meant to me. I could write here from now until the next world & never stop missing him. Never fill this hole. And never even come close to articulating what made him so perfect for me.
no more monsters
And so I ran. I took off running & haven’t looked back since. Nobody understood it. I don’t expect them to. How could you explain to directors & friends & managers & your brother & sister that sometimes things just stop. Now I sit here in Louisiana, in a small shack behind the railroad tracks where Homer Plessy was put off his train, where Norfolk Southern freights haul chemicals in a seemingly endless stream. Across the avenue is an old church called Trumpet & Truth Ministries. "Where the Holy Ghost has His Way…" In the parking lot of the church is a Bondsman billboard that says FREE ME. I search for signs of life on the computer & find the video of the band’s last show, a reunion at St. Vitus in Brooklyn. Towards the end of the last song, the crowd in full surging form, like some mammoth creature that moves like water, Jason disappears from view for a moment as he crouches down, bodies flying everywhere over the front of the stage. Then, the stars & spirits seem to align just perfectly enough, and suddenly Jason’s fragile, tiny body is elevated above the crowd, supported by their hands, everyone furiously pumping fists & fingers alight to try & keep him afloat. They lift him up, like a hero, and I swear it’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I can’t watch it without starting to melt. Like every body in that room possessed some collective silent intuition to raise him high as they could above them, to send him off on the beginnings of his way home, his path to the Heavens in style. Like a King on a litter, with a procession of trumpets calling out the truth to pave his way there. He looks so happy. I know that wherever he is, he’s still on top of the crowd. There he is, on his back again, hand over hand as he is passed around. Singing “FREE ME.”
Nothing will ever be the same. For I have never witnessed anything like I did that night at Stony Brook University & I doubt I ever will. And I don’t want to. The fire it stoked in me, in my heart the passions it incited & set aflame. All of it. It changed me. It made me feel like anything was possible. Like the world was enough to live for. Like all the fear & hate & ugliness & dishonesty for once, was not insurmountable, for once was not enough to defeat me. I met him at an age where I had never felt so fucked up, so afraid, so weak, so close to giving up completely. I was just 18. And he gave me hope. Hope that I could do great things, that I could touch people, that I could sing & play & dance just like him. That I could set other hearts afire & give other people hope & reason to live & courage to keep going. His words touched me so massively, it is hard for me to choose which of them is closest to my heart. But these will do:
All those churches
we all but tore down
I caught your eyes like a fever
or a mid-summer cold front
when this ship goes down
I’ll hit the ground running
I’ll hit the ground running
A small soul perhaps, but burning brightly. Like a shooting star.
Now I want you all to do me a favor as you read these last words:
I want you to take your hand
& put it over your heart
you feel that?
That’s called PURPOSE.
And that’s better than just being alive.
Jason taught me that.
I’m just repeating it here.
a shadow taller than you
(After this piece was published, 1985 received word from Emily Ruf, Jason's girlfriend and companion at the time of his passing, that Jason was not alone at the time of his death. Rather than alter the content, we decided to present this from Emily, here, in her words: "I was with him right when it happened...I was with him the whole time. I'm sure people may have 'reported' to others that I 'found' him, but I just want people to know the truth, that he wasn't alone. In such an awful moment in both our lives, it gives me comfort (and I'm sure it gave him comfort) to know that we were together. Together until the very end...Thank you for such a beautiful tribute." )
SONGS FOR JASON ROSENTHAL
When 1985 asked me how I wanted to add to the tribute for Jason I sent these two covers.
They're songs for Jason. I would like to encourage anyone else who has lost someone
to do the same if they like. Record a few of their songs. See how it feels. These are mine.