Sunday, September 27, 2009

Leaving Detroit

I left Detroit for the last time and moved out to the Bay Area in 1978. I was twenty-nine years old. Ten years earlier I had lived in San Francisco for a few months and had fallen in love with the place. It was always in the back of my mind to return and live there someday.

During my twenties in Detroit, I'd had a lot of musical success, with Brainstorm and all that. But there was also a dark side to those years. When I was twenty-two I'd started going to gay bars and having various love affairs and romances. Gay liberation was exploding all over the world. It was exciting and wonderful, actually it felt like a miracle, to finally have a chance to find someone to love. But I felt compelled to keep all of this secret from my family, my friends, and the musicians I worked with. There's a reason why so many of the greatest British spies were homosexual. We were forced to learn how to live double lives. Constantly covering our tracks, deftly lying or changing the subject to protect our identity.

Gay people were so loathed by society (and in most places still are), that at a very young age we learned one extremely important survival skill. We learned to keep our true feelings hidden. It's a terrible thing to live a double life. It takes a serious toll on a person's emotional and mental well-being. It's truly poisonous to the heart and soul. By my late twenties, I knew, somehow, I was going to have to "come out" and start living a more open life. And I knew this would be difficult around the people I had grown up with.

So I packed my musical instruments and a few suitcases in my car, gave my cat, Festus, to the sweet old lady next door (who was actually not too thrilled about it), and headed out Interstate 80. Bound for California and a new life.

Now driving across an entire continent can be quite a grind. You drive fourteen hours, sleep in a motel, get up and drive another fourteen hours, sleep, get up and drive another fourteen hours.... Finally, on the fourth day, bleary-eyed and half-crazy from boredom, you find yourself within striking distance of San Francisco.

But on the other hand, there's something exhilarating about crossing North America, all by yourself, in your little Datsun station wagon. You feel like Lewis and Clark, or even Magellan, circumnavigating the globe. I remember at one point I was highly caffeinated, my radio was blasting some ecstatic pop song, and I was yelling out the window, with the wind in my face, "Wait for me, California. I'm on my way. Come on kids, don't start without me. HERE I COME!".

It was winter. Very early in the year of 1978. The Detroit I had left, four days ago, was dirty, gray, barren, and cold. The snow on the city streets had been lying there forever, and was filthy, almost black. There had been no green grass, or leaves on tress, or flowers, or really any signs of life for many months. And crossing the Rocky Mountains on highway 80, I had just been driving on icy roads through tremendous snow storms and freezing winds.

So as I neared my destination, my old musician friend Ed DeDeo's place in West Marin, just north of San Francisco, I couldn't believe my eyes. The soft, rolling, grassy hills of Forest Knolls and Woodacre were brilliantly green. Breathtakingly green. The sun was shining, and the air was balmy and fragrant. It seemed that I had magically broken through some kind of time and space warp, and was driving my salt-encrusted Datsun into a glorious and sparkling midsummer day.

And in fact, I had broken through all kinds of barriers of space and time and emotion. My courage was rising, and I was on the verge of a great new adventure.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Ronny Schwartz and I were close friends when we were kids. Ronny had bright red hair, freckles, and a really nice disposition. He was always up for any of the crazy adventures and schemes I proposed, and in my memories, I always see him as smiling and cracking up. At some point, I named him "Schwo", as a kind of funny abbreviation of his last name. And till this day, almost fifty years later, Ronny is still called Schwo, by everyone, including his wife.

Now there was an elephant in the room, in our late 1950's middle-class neighborhood in northwest Detroit. It was something everyone knew about, but no one talked about. Schwo's father, Max Schwartz, was a bookie. Which means he was a small-time gangster, working for organized crime, and taking bets on horse races and other events. Actually, it was sort of cool. In the middle of automobile boom-town Detroit, in our middle-class, conformist, upstanding, all-American neighborhood, CRIME was taking place.

I remember Max very well. One day I was standing in his living room and Max was there with a few friends. The TV was announcing that Sir Edmund Hillary had just made the first successful ascent to the top of Mount Everest. In his gruff, New York Jewish accent, Max said, "Yeah, that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee". I guess he wasn't very impressed.

When we were thirteen, my older brother's band, The Classics, played Schwo's bar mitzvah. Now it was customary at these elaborate and showy affairs to have a candle-lighting ceremony. Different guests would be asked to light one of the thirteen candles on the cake. There would be a candle of honesty, a candle of integrity, a candle of diligence, etc. etc.

Well, at Schwo's bar mitzvah, this all became quite hilarious. As the band leader and M.C., my brother would announce, "and now, to light the candle of integrity, Mr. Chicky Sherman". And everyone would fall on the floor laughing. Apparently, Mr. Sherman had just been released from a federal prison, for tax evasion. And this would go on with the candle of honesty, the candle of modesty, the candle of scholarship, and so on. You get the picture.

And God forbid you should make the mistake of calling Schwo between three and six P.M., when Max was taking bets. In my high-pitched ten year-old voice I'd say "Is Ronny there?". And at the other end, Max would mutter "God Dammit" and the phone would slam down on the receiver.

Now one serious problem Max Schwartz had, was what to do with his money. He didn't want to declare his income or put it in a bank, so he bought jewelry. Schwo, who was a very unassuming and totally down-to-earth kid, would be bedecked in huge gold rings with bulbous diamonds popping out all over. Heavy gold and platinum chains around his neck, fabulous Swiss diamond wrist watches, and gold arm bracelets. One day at school, my friends and I tried to estimate the net worth of the jewelry Schwo was wearing that morning.

I want to mention here, that other kids might have become quite stuck-up or snobby, having all that expensive stuff. But Schwo, was just the sweetest, most totally unpretentious kid you could imagine. It didn't mean anything to him. He just wore it because his parents gave it to him. Anyway, I can't remember the exact figure we came up with, but it was many, many thousands of dollars, at a time when a man could comfortably support a family on $10,000 a year.

Schwo was a really good friend. We laughed a lot and had a lot of fun. Which is what kids are supposed to do.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Fierceness

Ten years ago I was working alone in my recording studio, adding the final touches to one of my new songs. The phone rang and a voice on the other end told me that I had stage-4 cancer. I had had no symptoms. In an instant the whole world careened to a total stop.

The next day a young doctor, after enthusiastically telling me about the new house he was buying for his family in an upscale suburb, very cauusally mentioned that I had an extremely rare form of cancer and that it was inoperable and incurable. I remember calling my sister from a telephone booth near the medical center. I remember the un-controlable tears streaming down my face as she told me she would fly out right away to be with me. They weren't tears of sadness or self pity. They were tears of joy upon realizing my sister's love for me.

Thus began an amazing roller coaster ride of heartbreaking joy and darkest despair. Over the next few days, as I experienced the tremendous love of my family and friends, my heart opened wide. It truly broke open. I was amazed at the power of love. I didn't know I could love that much. Or allow myself to be loved that much.

I also remember the beginning of what I call "the fierceness". I was driving across the Bay Bridge, maybe a week after my initial prognosis. I had just begun reading a book on alternative cancer treatments and it started to give me hope. Suddenly, in the middle of the bridge, I got really angry. Who are these people to tell me that my cancer is incurable? How do they know? How dare they!

When I got to the medical center twenty minutes later and stepped out of my car I was like a new person. An hour earlier I had been walking slowly and a little hunched over — like an old man, with one foot in the grave. Now there was spring in my step. I was fully energized. I was fierce and vitally alive. I learned that if someone tells you that your disease is incurable it means that they don't have a cure for it. You thank them very much and go looking for someone who does have a cure.

And so I started on a five year journey — a search that eventually led me back to my life and my health.

Monday, September 21, 2009

High Times At The London Bridge

My band, Brainstorm, played five nights a week, for nine months, at a big, beautiful dance club just outside Detroit. The club was called "The London Bridge", and the two guys that owned it, loved us. Originally, we were an all black (except for me) eight piece band, with two horns and two fabulous girl singers. The club was in Dearborn, an all white suburb, but it was cool because we drew a mixed, black and white crowd, and everyone got along real well. The club held hundreds and hundreds of people, and the reason the owners loved us, was that folks were lined up around the block to get in. It was 1975-1976, and we were a big hit in Detroit. I was twenty-six years old.

The night club had a huge dance floor, and everyone who was anyone came out to see us and dance to our music. Many celebrities came through, including members of the Detroit Pistons, and musician Frank Zappa (who tried to steal our bass player).

The owners loved us so much that they gave us a spacious and very private dressing room to hang out in during our breaks. Many times, the eight band members and a few friends would be down in our dressing room, partying, telling funny stories, and, of course, smoking a few joints, and we would literally forget that there were a couple hundred paying customers upstairs waiting to hear us. We weren't trying to be rude, we were just having so much fun that we completely forgot where we were. Sometimes an hour would go by, and suddenly we would come to our senses and rush upstairs to the stage. And in the nine months we worked there, never once did the owners look at their watches, or try to hurry us up. In fact, they never even mentioned it to us.

Now, this was the mid-seventies, and these were high times in America. But I wouldn't say we were really heavy drug users. We smoked some pot, and people would sometimes buy us drinks, but that was about it. I do, however, remember one night that was a little different.

Someone had brought some coke down to our dressing room. This was unusual, but how could we refuse? We all sniffed a little and went upstairs to play our set. Now, the thing about Brainstorm was that in addition to being an incredibly passionate and high energy band, we were also very polished, and highly rehearsed. We had tight arrangements, with great vocal harmonies, horn lines, instrumental transitions, and dramatic endings. So, we were up there playing down our set, and, like always, everything sounded perfect. All the T's were being crossed and all the I's were being dotted. Everything was in it's place. But about halfway through the set, I turned around and looked at Ranel, our drummer, and we both cracked up. Because, while everything was perfect and in it's place, the tempos we were playing at were off the charts. It was like a 33 rpm record was being played at 78 rpm.

Now I realize a lot of younger people today have no idea what a 33 or 78 rpm record is. So let me just say that on that night, we played those songs FAST. I mean, Alvin and the Chipmunks would have felt very comfortable jamming with us that night. It was indeed high times at The London Bridge.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Drew's Lounge

When I was twenty-three I got my first steady gig as a piano player. I had been performing music professionally as a band-leader, trumpet player and lead singer since I was eleven years old, but only began studying piano when I was nineteen.

Three black guys, a bassist, guitarist and drummer, asked me to join them for a four day a week gig at a little club called Drews. It was the beginning of several years of working the "chitlin' circuit"–small dance clubs (really just bars) with a black clientele in the Detroit inner city. We played there for several months, four hours a night and four days a week, and the amazing thing is, we never had one rehearsal. I think we only knew about eight or nine songs! But we would hit a groove, and really stretch those songs out. One song could easily last twenty minutes. If we had smoked a little weed, it could last twenty-five or thirty minutes. And the people loved it. It was a big party and the dance floor was full.

I actually had no idea what I was doing as an R&B pianist. The other guys were really good rhythm and blues players, well grounded in the music of the black church and the blues, but they seemed to like what I was doing. I know I was passionate and creative, and I guess they liked that I gave them a more "original" sound.

We used to drink Miller Lite beer, mixed with a sweet red syrup called Grenadine. Wow!

One night we were sitting at a table, just chilling during our fifteen minute break. Suddenly, the lights went out. I mean it was pitch black. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It didn't last long. I'm sure less than thirty seconds. But when the lights came back on, Lamont, the bass player, who had been sitting next to me, was miraculously up on the stage, with his arms spread wide, protecting his bass and bass amplifier. I was really impressed. Lamont had grown up poor, in the dog eat dog realty of city life. As soon as those lights went out, he immediately assumed it might be a stick-up. He pounced on stage to protect his investment. I respected Lamont's quick wits, and survival skills. A few years later, Lamont and I were founding members of the legendary Detroit funk band, Brainstorm. And I should mention here, that Lamont Johnson was an INCREDIBLE bass player!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Amsterdam Nights

I've had a lot of romantic and sexual partners in my life. More than I can remember in my long (as I like to call it) "career" as a homosexual. But only once did I actually use someone for economic purposes. I'm not proud of this, but I'll tell you how it happened.

I was twenty-one, and living with a bunch of international hippies in an abandoned house in Amsterdam. It was winter, and the canals had frozen solid. My wonderful friend, Bob, who I'd just met a few days earlier, decided to show me one of Amsterdam's huge gay dance clubs. Bob wasn't gay, but when I told him I was (an act of unbelievable courage for me at that tender age) he just wanted to show me what Amsterdam had to offer.

This was 1971. The beginning years of gay liberation, and I had never been to a gay disco. I don't even think there were any in Detroit, where I grew up. On that winter night in Amsterdam, Bob and I walked into a huge and fabulous multi-level space with dance music blasting. It seemed like there were a thousand kids dancing and partying. Kids from all over the world. I'm sure I must have looked a little dazed and star-struck.

A few hours into the evening, I was standing near the dance floor, when a guy came up to me and started speaking Spanish. I told him I don't speak Spanish, and he switched over to English. He said his name was S., and that he was from Mexico. He'd thought I was Mexican. I don't know why. I had just arrived from weeks in Spain and Morocco, so I'm sure I was pretty tanned. I also had a moustache and was in my scruffy, hippy mode of attire. S. said he was an artist and had a factory in Guadalajara that produced his decorative art objects.

He was obviously "interested" in me, but here I've got to be completely honest. S. was a good-looking, very charming and intelligent guy, but he was TWENTY-SIX! When I was twenty-one, someone who was twenty-six was beyond my comprehension. I know, I'm an "ageist pig"", but there it is. I just was not attracted to such an old guy. (I realize this is totally absurd– have you looked at a twenty-six year old lately?) The other thing I have to admit, is that i've always liked younger guys. When I was twelve, I liked eleven year olds.....

Well, I guess S. was pretty persuasive, because I ended up leaving with him. And it turned out that he was staying in an incredibly luxurious gay hotel. I need to remind you that at this time I had been living in an abandoned, broken-down hippy house with NO HEAT and horrible plumbing in the middle of the Dutch winter. S.'s gay hotel had central heating, double mattress beds, impeccably clean bathrooms and a multi-course breakfast served every morning!

So, like a total whore, I stayed with S. for a while. Actually, he was a really interesting guy, and I learned a lot from him. He showed me slides of some of his artwork. I could see that it was imaginatively and professionally done, but it was decorative art, and didn't have the depth or soul that I look for in art. I should mention, that S. eventually became internationally famous and very rich, with his own high-end galleries all over the world.

So that's my story. After a while I moved back to America to begin my music career in earnest. It was the one time I used my looks and youth to get bourgeois, material comfort. I hope you won't judge me too harshly.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Six Weeks In A Cracked House

As soon as we got to Amsterdam, Jim took me over to a "cracked" house he knew about, and introduced me to the five or six people who were living there. For Free! Like, NO RENT! And what a colorful cast of characters it was.

I immediately became great friends with Bob Regan, a long-haired Irish-American hippy, a few years older than me, who had recently graduated from art school in New York. Bob had a wonderfully outgoing personality and he seemed to be friends with everyone in Amsterdam. He kind of took me under his wing and began introducing me all around.

Their was a German hippy there, who kept talking about "wampires". And there was a South African white guy with a big black beard. He was all of twenty-six or seven, and seemed extremely grown up and mature in my twenty-one year old eyes. He looked and acted like some kind of communist revolutionary, but, come to think of it, all he ever seemed to be doing was trying to bed the various young hippy girls who were floating through.

I mean, this place was FUNKY. The winter was coming on (the canals had frozen) and all we had was a little oil burning stove for heat. The guys had brought in a working toilet and sink, and actually, sort of, made the plumbing work. (It must have been so horrible, that I seem to have blocked out any memory of it.) And for electricity, they ran an extension cord out to a street lamp. Talk about a fire hazard! We also, very carefully covered all the windows with newspaper, so no one would know we were there at night.

I think one of the most exciting things about living in a new place, where nobody knows you, is that you can re-invent yourself. I had never told any of my friends that I was gay. I had felt compelled to carefully, and painfully, hide it for many years. But I felt so liberated in this exotic setting, and so comfortable with my new friend, Bob Regan, that I just immediately came out and told him. It felt so great not to have to hide anything. Finally, I could really be myself. And of course, Bob, who was straight, was completely accepting of me. He said, cool, tomorrow night I'll take you to these two huge gay dance clubs called the D.O.C. and the C.O.C. And he did......

(to be continued......)