Black Rock Bottom

hsmI took Holden to dinner the other night. Justine was off doing something. Probably seeing a musical. The woman loves musicals. Put folks in tights and have them burst into spontaneous song, and my wife is tickled all shades of giddy. It was just the boy and I on a Man’s Night Out. We get a few of these a month, and the routine is pretty much the same. Holden gets to pick where to eat, and we always get ice cream. Am I trying to buy my son’s love? Yes. Yes, I am.

We went to my favorite restaurant, a Korean BBQ joint on Solano Ave., in Berkeley. Truth is if I let Holden choose freely, he will go pizza, every time. We have to narrow choices down a bit. If I can sell the boy on a “fancy dinner,” any place with rice will do. (At three and a half, my son, fortunately, still believes rice equates to “fancy.” I will wait to tell him that the low-rent grain is actually filler as long as I benefits me financially.)

What kind of soulless monster doesn't at least smile at a toddler in a fedora?
What kind of soulless monster doesn’t at least crack a grin at a toddler in a fedora?

I picked up the kid from school, on a lovely, warm California evening, feeling happy to be alive. We’re having a nice early dinner, which means a nice early bedtime. With Justine out and the kid in bed by 8, I get to make a fresh pot of coffee and work on the new novel. (Yay, fun!)

Holden has his rice. I have my spicy meat wrapped in spicier meat. And the kid, knowing he’s getting ice cream and that Daddy is pretty lax with the rules, is hamming it up. I am talking Cute 4.0 Optimum XL Edition. And let’s face it, the byproduct of Justine and me, he’s pretty fucking cute.

Then they walked in.

atlas-shrugged1I have a problem, I freely admit. I judge a book by its cover. It’s not a good trait, I know. True beauty is on the inside, I get it. But I can generally look at someone and decide within seconds that I hate them. And it’s not an attractive or unattractive thing, or even how someone dresses, if he or she is heavy, thin, somewhere in between. Sometimes it’s because I am a surly miserable curmudgeon; and sometimes it’s because people are just fucking awful, man.

These two girls in their early 20s sit down right beside our table (the early 20s are weird, and I never know what to call females at that age. “Girls” is condescending, “women” too old. And no one likes “ladies.” This isn’t the fucking 1800s. We’ll just go with girls, I guess). Immediately I can tell that if the human race were whittled down to just us three, humanity dies out. This goes beyond appearance. It’s a vibe, man. We are magnets clearly repelling.

390888_10150371308587662_533097661_8407522_377235320_nNow I get that not everyone likes kids. There are plenty of people who don’t procreate, have no intention of breeding, and don’t get all squishy whenever they see a baby. But these two girls never look at the kid. Not even a cursory glance. Which is just weird. I don’t expect everyone to fawn over my boy or go all gaga, but generally anytime I’ve been hanging out with the boy, just the two of us, women tend to find him pretty irresistible, so much so that I told Justine should she ever (tragically) be abducted by aliens or whatever, I would probably be single for about seven minutes. (Sorry, honey, the boy is a chick magnet.) But to these two, my son might as well be a troll rock.

384319_10150441666055709_528310708_10862659_446231434_nRight away, these two girls start talking loudly, and every other word is “fuck,” and every topic revolves around who is “fucking” whom (BTW, all boyfriends in these stories are “assholes”). Which is OK, I guess. I mean, I am not a prude. I don’t get why we have to bleep out “crystal meth” on the radio, or blur out boobs on TV. As long as they are not racially insensitive, words don’t bother me. But I watch my language around kids. Most people do. You don’t talk butt plugs when you’re around preschoolers. It’s one of those unspoken rules.

Anyway, these two keep cursing like randy merchant marines on shore leave in Singapore, but whatever. It’s Man’s Night Out, meat on meat, and the rice is extra fancy. Soon, we will get ice cream. Life is good. Except it’s hard to block out shrilling carnal exploits two feet away from your 3-and-a-half year old son. I’ve never seen the show “Girls,” but I know about it, and the way these two are carrying on, the hand gestures and artful ennui woven between the detailed sexual escapades, the thrift store garb and utter lack of self-awareness, I can’t help but feel like they are acting out a scene, the situation so manufactured, the rapt attention and deliberately shocking language, a ribald demographically tested tableux.

Oh, man, am a bad person.

And then I’m, like, Holy shit I’m a bad person. Here I am, seething with murderous rage, judging these two girls because why? They remind me of a television program I have never watched? They don’t want to acknowledge how irresistibly cute my kid is? Yes, they probably shouldn’t be cursing in a family restaurant, but I don’t know anything about their lives. (Outside of their apparently having very robust sexual ones.) They might be old friends, stuck in terrible jobs, and all they have to look forward to in their miserable lives are meaningless one-night stands and this weekly dinner. So what if they are dressed like 17th Century modern-primative pirates? I sized up I hated them the second they walked in. I never even gave them a chance, man. I am a bad person. A bad, bad person.

Then I hear it.

“I fucking have to go back this year.” (Dramatic pause.) “I have to overcome my … Black Rock Bottom.”

(For those [luckily] not in the know, Black Rock is where the teeming hordes of dirty hippies head every summer for the Burning Man festival to don skimpy beachwear and build shitty sculptures [whilst doing designer drugs and having sex with strangers.])

And they won’t shut up.

burning man mertens 3-thumb-575x766“Oh my God, I know! Last year was my Black Rock Bottom, too. I just have to fucking get over my Black Rock Bottom.”

My Black Rock Bottom was so fucked.” (Cue stupid forced laughter.)

“You think your Black Rock Bottom was bad? I got so wasted. I didn’t even know where I was! My Black Rock Bottom was terrible! I have to go back to Burning Man this year.”

“Me, too. Me, too. I said I wouldn’t go out like that. I just have to triumph over my Black Rock Bottom.”

dumb-hippies2And on and on, and I realize this whole exchange has been a prelude to a sound-bite. Two feet away, just trying to have dinner with my son, I’m stuck in some trendy drama about secondhand hipsters playing grown-up in the big city. Burning Man with a catchphrase. Pretty much my idea of a living hell.

This is the real tragedy. Just when I think I am learning to love and appreciate the beauty around me, these two, with this vapid, clichéd exchange, have only reinforced by worst tendencies. They proved my skepticism correct, and in doing so have rewarded a dog for pissing on the couch, my contempt justified. I’ve run through the seven stages of grief over the course of kimchee, and can’t get out of there fast enough. I get our check, pay our bill, and bolt.

We leave so fast, I am about half a block before I realize I’ve left my favorite pair of sunglasses behind. Holding the boy’s hand, I turn around and contemplate returning for them. But I can’t. I can’t go back in there. We’ve gone too far. Together, my son and I forge ahead, into the blinding soundless sun, on a mission to get ice cream. Goddammit, my boy is getting his ice cream. That sun will set, but it will rise again, and as Lord is my witness, may he never hear those words again. (Black Rock Bottom, I mean. I still don’t think swearing is a big deal.)

Yeah. To annoy the fuck out of me.
Yeah. To annoy the fuck out of me.

Sad Eyes & Second Tries

I had a totally different post planned for this week. Then Jeff Franklin, who produced Something Like Paisley, my old CT band, sent this recently unearthed photograph, taken during one of our recording sessions. 


 And it hit me hard. I think it’s the eyes. They just seem so … sad.

sad eyesAin’t no mystery. I was a sad fucking kid. Even now I’m not entirely sure why. I mean, every Monday I replay the past and my shrink tries to pin it down. Beyond the very-tired (and played out) “Daddy didn’t love me” card, I’m not sure we are any closer to the answer. 

bernieIt’s become a bit of a running joke, now, my miserable disposition, and am a card-carrying curmudgeon. I sneer at laughter, hate gestures of good will; I loathe the idea of fun. But mostly because I hate people so goddamn much. Not the person. In fact, almost to a man, I like everyone I meet. Which I suppose makes me a Republican. (They say that a Democrat loves humanity but couldn’t care less about his neighbor, whereas a Republican doesn’t give two shits about the world at large but will bend over backwards to help a friend. Like George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, I stereotype; it saves time. And if I am a Republican, that explains the self-loathing.)

We become comfortable with persona and perception, and I really do grunt any time I move, because it fucking hurts. The motorcycle accident left me with so many broken parts and so much chronic pain that whenever I sit down I feel like Ed Norton after a shower in American History X. Overall these days my mental state is pretty good. I don’t rah-rah much, but I’ve never been a cheerleader. I’d rather be alone, working, making art, being productive, than out at a party. The thing is, I don’t suffer the existential angst anymore. At least not in the weight-of-the-universe-crushing-my-soul sense. When a light bulb goes out, it doesn’t feel like my life is over. I change the fixture. I move on.

Not when Tom Brady steals your job and wins the Super Bowl you never could.

Not sure when it happened. I know I still carry the anguish, and that strife is visible in my countenance. (In grad school, I remember Campbell McGrath explaining the concept of American Male Despair, a distinctly American brand of burden, ardor and woe, and someone in class shouted out, “Oh, like Joe Clifford!”) I don’t mind being perceived this way or that, especially when I am the one who perpetuates the idea. But, fuck, I am tickled giddy that I am not that guy in the picture anymore. Even if I can still feel it.

Like recollecting any distant bad dream or memory, its sensation dulled, though the raised ridge of scar remains. I’m glad Jeff sent the pic–I don’t have many of them; my history fits in a shoebox–but it makes me want to shake the shit out that kid. Toughen up, son. Knock some sense into his dopey face before he heads down that dark path.

Life has turned out pretty fucking OK for me. In fact, I am not sure I could’ve imagined a better outcome (the lost ’90s notwithstanding). Sure, there’s the chance of being a Leonardo-like movie star, or the next Mick Jagger–I could’ve won the lottery. Hell, maybe even banged Kate Upton. But those are one-in-a-million shots, and considering the number of people miring in despair, the quiet and not-so kind, I’ll take the long straw I drew. Most would. I do what I want every day. I have a gorgeous, loving wife and darling, delightful son. I write books. They publish the books I write. I hurt, but not for money. Life is a pretty sweet fruit.

joe nowI suppose it’s natural to want to do it all over again. I am 43. There’s no way around it. Best case scenario, half my life is over. I have to get up to take a piss six times a night. And, yeah, I am still good looking. But for how much longer? I can already see the wrinkles, the gray (the dark circles have always been there). My hair? Brother, I’m on borrowed time. But, shit, I’d like another crack, even if I couldn’t do much better. I want to try. Maybe this time I’d have confidence with the ladies, wouldn’t awkwardly stare at their shoes and mumble. Maybe I’d avoid the drugs and heartache. Maybe this time my mom would be able to stick around long enough to see my kid. Maybe I would, I don’t know, enjoy it more. Take more chances. Dance. That kind of shit. I want to try again even though I know I’d probably end up with the same hat; and I’d be damned lucky if I did.


You see a picture, like that one where I’m 18, and you can’t help but to feel a modicum of regret. If only because you didn’t realize how precious youth was when you had it. You waste so much time on the inconsequential, the bitching and complaining, wishing instead of doing, that you miss the good parts. At least I did. And now that I can recognize them, I am too damned broken to truly appreciate them. And my prostate is the size of a grapefruit.

Reminds me of that Baz Luhrmann song. 

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never-mind.
You will not appreciate the power and beauty of your youth
until they’ve faded. But trust me, in twenty years you’ll look back
at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now
how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked….

Ain’t that the truth, brother.


New Website and My Fake ID

I’m going to try to reel in my disgust over the Super Bowl and not subject you to a rant about how my friend Mike in Miami is right, and after Brady went all Hollywood, he hasn’t won shit.  On the biggest stage, with a chance to seek revenge against the Giants and that mole-faced little bastard Eli who ruined his chance at perfection four years ago in the desert, Tom Terrific was anything but.  I am sickened and disgusted, and reminded of something my granddaddy once said to me and one of life’s great truisms: sports will only break your heart, boy.

(Oh, and fuck you, Wes Welker.)

But the good news is…the new website is here!  The new website is here.  And here it is:  Very important.  Starting tomorrow, this is where you’ll also go to find the blog.  You can still type in the old address, which will direct you here anyway.  The only issue might be if you use an RSS Reader (whatever the fuck that is).  My webguy says that if you do you’ll want the new address.  So there you go.

Pretty cool new graphic, eh?  (Thanks, Zenaida!)  Don’t worry.  The content is not going to change.  Candy and Cigarettes is still committed to bringing you the very finest in goofy You Tube clips and funny cat pics.  But we wanted to look, y’know, more professional and shit.  Some of the features should make your life easier. Like, for instance, you can just leave a comment now without having to sign up with a Google account.  Which is pretty cool.  Gone, too, are some of the bells and whistles, the MySpace-like glitter of a tweeny girl heavily crushing on the Beibs. Which is long overdue, really; we’re all supposed to be grownups here.  (Though I am sad to lose the flames.  Fire is cool.)

So take a look around the new site.  Let me know what you think, or what you hate. I think it should be a lot more user friendly, with greater accessibility to my work. Hope you agree.  If not, I can fix stuff, since it’s all been converted to WordPress, which means I no longer have to rely on others to do my updates.  It’s all about self-sufficiency.


We had a Super Bowl party on the hill yesterday.  Lots of people.  Tons of food. Which might’ve been cool if the Pats won.  But they lost.  What could’ve been a joyous celebration quickly turned into: Who the hell are all these people and why are they eating my food?

Got a couple cool mementos from my past, though.  One, Noah, who played guitar in my first band in CT, Something Like Paisley, brought a burned disc of our long-lost college rock classic So It Goes (still one of the best memories of my life was driving down the Berlin Turnpike at 18, flipping through the stations and hearing one of my songs [the cringe-worthily titled…”Electric Sun.”  Good tune.  Awful title] on the radio.  Trinity College’s WRTC.  But still).

I’ve been getting the rough mixes of these from our old engineer in Connecticut, Jeff, who has been painfully pulling the songs, track by track, off nearly 20-year-old, disintegrating 1/2″ tape, importing the tunes into some modern, space-age software for a later mix down (it’s like living in the future).  But what Noah brought over is the original record, in all it’s intended, power pop shimmery glory, which he dug out of his mom’s attic on a Christmas trip back east.  It’s the first time these songs have been heard (as originally mixed) in probably close to a decade.  I am going to remaster all this shit later and put it up on iTunes.  Best music I ever made. Seriously.  Which is really, really depressing if you think about it.

The other trinket delivered was further proof that I, too, was once young.  My first fake ID.

                                                                 Now that is a crisp, flinty glow!

Rich found it in his stuff at his house.  He must’ve used it too at one point.  (And, no, we never really looked alike, except in the way that all clean shaven, angelic 18-year-old boys all look the same.)  The funny part about my having a fake ID is I didn’t drink.  Like, at all.  Didn’t touch a drop of alcohol until I was 21 (and within the year I’d be addicted to meth.  Which is a lesson to all you parents out there.  It’s all about moderation). What did I need a fake ID for?  Fuck if I know.

The name on the ID belonged to Chris Judd, my co-frontman in Paisley, who would go on to develop schizophrenia and swell to close to 400 lbs., becoming a shut-in.  I haven’t spoken to him in over a decade either.  It’s a shame.  He was a great songwriter and singer, and more importantly, he was a good friend.  A much better friend to me than I was to him.  (What else is new?)

Finding old pictures of yourself like this presents a weird sensation.  On the one hand, I am obviously younger (and ridiculously feminine looking.  I mean, seriously, I’ve dated women who weren’t as pretty as that).  Yet…this is still what I see, for the most part, when I look in the mirror.  Sure, I catch the wrinkles and gray, the ravage of the hard years, but when I look into my own eyes, I still see a 16-year-old boy (or 18, in this case).  And I don’t feel much older than that.  It’s like in many ways I remained trapped in this state of perpetual adolescence, angst and violent mood swings very much included.

It’s also a bit like The Shawshank Redemption.  Remember the part where Red finally gets his parole?  They ask him if he feels he’s rehabilitated, and he delivers this great speech about how that word doesn’t mean anything to him anymore.  But is he sorry for what he did?  Not a day goes by that he’s not sorry.   Most of all though he wishes he could go back and talk to that crazy, angry kid?  Save everyone a lot of time and hassle; get another chance to get it right.

I guess in way I do get to do that.  Maybe that’s what being a dad really is all about. As my boy, Holden, grows up, I get to impart wisdom and share my life experience, point out the potential pitfalls and how best to avoid danger.  And he’ll think (or say) I don’t know what I’m talking about, and set off to discover the answers on his own.  We’ve been doing this dance since the dawn of time, right?  If it wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be a Cat Stevens song.

And on that note… Don’t forget.  Starting tomorrow, you can find us here:  Same Bat-time.  New Bat-channel.  Bookmark us!