This past weekend I flew 3,000 miles back home to spend time with my baby sister and niece, and see all four nights of Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings III. Several nights of moshing left me with a sprained ankle, pulled hamstring, a(n) (obvious) screwed-up back, and one of the best memories of my life, at least post-dead-brother.
I say “back home,” but I don’t really have a home back east anymore, not since my brother Josh died, which some of you may be sick of hearing about. His passing is a couple years old now, and even though expected and lamented, I feel like I am just coming out of the murk now (despite reports I was “back” before). That’s the funny thing with grieving and depression and being wrecked by life and all that shit. You think it’s getting better because it’s getting lighter, and it may be getting lighter–but that don’t mean it’s getting better. I will try to stay light on the brother stuff. I’ve written a lot about it, with more coming out, and I don’t care how tragic personal tragedy gets, human nature has a propensity to, after a while, lose patience. (“Get on with it, already!”) And I agree. But I also share so many dark moments that I only feel it right to share the bright ones too.
This weekend was a bright moment.
I am a big Frank Turner fan. He’s one of three artists/bands (in addition to its many saints) that shape my post-Springsteen brand of secular rock and roll lapsed Catholicism. Lost Evenings is an annual event Frank puts on. It’s a festival, really, jammed with kick-ass band after kick-ass artist, plus pop-up tattoo stands and other amazing artist installations. I’ve seen Frank at least a dozen times. I don’t judge a person on whether they like Frank. But I will say this: if you don’t like Frank, we can maybe still be friends. But we sure as shit can’t be roommates.
Now, at my advanced age (in conjunction with crippling denigrative bone condition), rocking for four days, let alone dancing (which I’m no good at, but I’ve got to do something), takes a toll on my body. The pills and patches help, and I won’t lie, Frank’s special cocktail didn’t hurt either. But whatever pain remained was so worth it. This was one of those reaffirming goddamn it’s good to be alive trips.
First, I got to hang out every night with friends. My buddy Rich, who I’ve known since I was five, flew from SF with me. Usually I see him once a week for our golf league, but it was also nice to hang with the guy and not be thinking about how my wrist is turning and balls are spinning. Homoerotic overtones aside, golf is a game of never-ending analysis and self-doubt. Sorta the opposite of rock and roll. There was a song a while back that I post often, “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” by Baz Luhrman. It’s a high school graduation speech set to music, and paired with Rocky and “6 Harsh Truths” is probably the only thing you need to know to live an examined life. One of the lines is about how the older you get the more you need the people who knew you when you were young. There is another that talks about bridging the gaps in geography.
Since Josh died, when it comes to family of origin, it’s really just my sister and me. And 3,000 miles and two families of our own, with working schedules and taxes and houses and, well, life, can make that bridge tough to transverse sometimes. I need to make more of an effort. And by hosting Lost Evenings in Boston this year, Frank did me my first favor of the weekend.
My niece Sofia is almost two, and she’s finally not scared of my beard. She let me hold her and play with her this time; and if you’ve ever lost a mom early, looking into the eyes of your baby niece is trippy and affirming. All the generations that came and went, and the suffering and sorrow, and then there’s this perfect little face with big eyes staring back at you. And I see my mom still here even though she’s not here anymore. Like I see my grandmother. Like I see my brother in my own boys’ eyes. (Like I sometimes see my father in mine. But I try not to stare too long at the son.)
It was hard being away from my family so long. For a short trip, four days, this one felt really long. I get anxious whenever I travel. I missed my boys, wife, my cousin Celeste who lives on the West Coast near me and has become more like the bigger sister I never had than a cousin. But I was surrounded by family all weekend. My East Coast family. My sister Melissa, now a mom who has blossomed into this beautiful grown-up woman, and that precious little girl of her’s (really makes me want another one. Just got Jack Jack out of diapers. What am I thinking?!). My brother-in-law was there, my (other) buddy Tom was there. My cousin Jason (or Jasón) drove 4 hours, sans phone to make one of the shows. Rich’s cousin Peter, with whom I grew up in the *Berlin projects was there. (*note: the “Berlin projects” are a really, really nice fucking neighborhood in just about another other town).
But the highlight …
Now this might choke me up. It certainly did the night of. See, Frank Turner is one cool dude. I’d written Frank before I set to publish Porter 5, Rag and Bone (available June 4 at fine retailers everywhere), asking if I could use some of his lyrics for the epigraph. The lyrics to his “Song for Josh” sums up my relationship with my brother better than all five Jay Porter books put together. Of course Frank said yes. I don’t know if there is a more gracious, giving, authentic good guy in all of rock. The man oozes authenticity and positivity. But not the kind of “positivity” like “Life, Laugh, Love” that makes you want to claw your eyes out. No, his is the genuine article, the kind that matters to the broken and lost. It’s the positivity of a man who has seen bad days, who knows what it’s like to want to die, to have dark thoughts, to be carved up by the savage, and still finds the courage to reach out, try and connect, do the hard part–love when you could so much more easily give up and hate. If Frank’s got my back, I’ll go on.
Anyway, this is getting really fucking long and my flight is about to land. I’ll get to my point.
Like I said, Frank has a song, fittingly titled … “Song for Josh.” It’s a gut-punch about a friend of his named Josh who took his own life. Having a brother (Josh) who took his own life (which, let’s face it, is what he fucking did) would hurt enough (in the profoundly personal way only the best sad songs can). Add to this my brother was a huge Frank fan. Add to this, by the end, Josh and I had almost nothing to talk about. Talking to Josh at the end was like shouting through a 30-thick-foot concrete wall in the opposite directions during a hurricane. The drugs, drink, damage by that point … But we had a few things we could still connect over. Breaking Bad. Baseball. And rock and roll. In particular The Hold Steady and … Frank Turner.
My brother loved Frank, and when he heard “Song for Josh,” he made me promise I’d play it at his wake. I knew he was killing himself with drugs but I didn’t know he was dying.
My brother knew he was dying.
I played it at his wake. I’ve played it since. And, yeah, usually brings me to tears.
But I’d never heard Frank play it live. I don’t think he does often. I think it’s a hard song for him to play because it hurts to relive. But I write Frank before a lot of shows (like I said, I’ve seen him a dozen times) and still ask. Maybe it’s selfish interest. Maybe I’m desperate to feel the presence of my brother again.
So I wrote Frank before this show. I had an excuse. Rag and Bone copies arrived, and I took a screenshot to show how cool his epigraph looked, not wanting to be presumptuous that Frank would want to read my book. But of course Frank is a righteous mutherfucker and asked for a signed copy (!). Then I had to try once more. I said, “Listen, last time I’ll bug you about this. But my baby sister is coming to her first Frank show on Saturday, and I want to make it super special. If there is any way you could play ‘Song for Josh’…” He responded and, very patiently, said he’d see what he could do. I honestly didn’t expect more than that.
Fast forward through Thursday (which saw one of Springsteen’s saints, the always-excellent Micah Schnabel, open and kick ass), and the Hold Steady follow the next night. My sister, cousin, Rich, and I went to Saturday’s show, and you know where there is going or I wouldn’t be writing this fucking post.
I understand human psychology, how we will what we want, invent what’s not there to suit our own personal delusions. It’s why 70% of Americans believe in angels (but only angels who can’t see us in our “private moments.” But, yeah, when Frank played “Song for Josh,” I was still moved. Deeply. My sister was too. Maybe Frank was planning on playing it anyway. Melissa was at the bar afterward, recovering, and overheard a couple talking about how many shows they’ve seen and how Frank never plays that song. (I immediate sent Frank a thank you, and of course he wrote back, surprisingly fast, that it was his pleasure. He also thanked me for the books I’d left with his merch guy with the tattoos on his head.)
Not sure you can wrap this up. But to quote Frank once more, the pain pays our dues. So below is the song, which my sister recorded on her phone. If you knew my brother, I think it’ll move you too.
(Frank Turner, “Song for Josh,” House of Blues 5/18/19)
(Click link to play)