A Regular Guy: For Peter Brayman

I’ll start by asking you as a personal favor to read this whole thing. I know that the Internet is TL;DR, but it’s important to me that everyone read this. Thanks.

This is about my friend Peter Brayman.

Pete grew up in a small rural town in New York. He was a New York State firefighter EMT, an amateur radio operator, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo, and a computer nerd. It was in that last capacity that we met. We were both “Guides” on America Online, a half-paid half-job, half cop and half tech support. Pete and I hit it off immediately. We shared ham radio, computer nerding, and medical jobs. Partly because of the medical background we shared also a dark, dark sense of humor: the slang of those who see death and injury, the shocking little jokes, the deadly funny banana-peel stories

We were close friends for years. We spoke daily, sometimes almost all day over instant messaging. After our AOL activity, we went into parallel careers connected to the Internet and its technologies. We helped each other out learning new things, gave each other tips and leads, hosted each others’ projects. I can think of at least five running gags that we shared over the years that no other person on Earth would have appreciated.

Our closeness was deepened by our differences. I am verbal, a natural writer, knowledgeable about many varied things, judgmental, snobbish, hypercritical of myself and others, and sexually frustrated. Pete was a terrible speller, very focused in his education, tolerant, accepting of others’ faults, and successful with women. Our politics differed, but he listened politely to my little rants and never offered anything in response but what we shared. Especially in those days I flew into little rages too often, and his anger was rare and not much spoken.

Pete died too young, three years ago today. He left a fiancée, a beloved uncle, some good friends, and me. It’s a cliché to say that you think often of someone who’s died, but it’s true in this case. Frequently I want to share something with him, or think of something he’d say right now.

So far, so conventional. Why am I writing an everyday story of an everyday life?

There’s something else about Pete that everyone noticed first. He was born with a dreadful disease called Neurofibromatosis-2. This causes tumors to grow on nerves and is uniformly fatal. From childhood he knew that he was permanently ill and that this could not get better. Since his mother was affected with the same disease, he could see his future in real time.

Pete had occasional surgeries his entire life, ranging from a trim of some lump on an extremity to invasive brain surgery. He lost mobility, became deaf, lost use of a hand, and suffered through another hundred failures of the flesh. Because of deafness and the effect of the disease on his appearance he appeared to be mentally handicapped and was treated as such. Past a certain point in the process he was clearly in discomfort all the time.

Because he was on full disability, he could not work full time, although he had a successful consulting business. Too much success and he would lose his medical benefits and therefore die. Survival required subtle skill with government paperwork. As with other handicapped people he had to fight every social obstacle to those with mobility and hearing problems.

On top of all this, Pete had a family that was unworthy of him. I won’t go into details, because he wouldn’t, but I am to this day gravely disappointed in everyone except his uncle, who is a fine man.

Now here’s the thing: Pete lived an ordinary life.

He achieved as an EMT and a college graduate. He worked hard and well at a technical profession. He dated a few women and was engaged to a wonderful one. He had moderate conservative politics and moderate religious views. He liked ice cream and loved Disneyland. He was proud of being a firefighter and embarrassed at his bad spelling. He was, unlike all my other friends, a moderate and ordinary man who sought out and led an uncomplicated life.

How the hell did he do that?

His attitude toward life’s giant sack of bad luck was perfectly sane. He didn’t deny the disease or pretend to others that it was okay. Everything about it was monstrously unfair and awful; it hurt; it made him feel different and separated from others; it frightened him. There wasn’t any sentimental heroism in Pete. He didn’t give out false hope or encourage others to do so. When he was frustrated or scared or in pain he would talk about it honestly.

Somehow he also avoided making the disease his life. A typical conversation with Pete was honestly about ice cream or car crashes or the hilarity of AOL management without any bit of that awful darkness leaking through. He was genuinely sympathetic to my own life problems. Pete never pulled the “my life is worse” card even though perfectly entitled to do so. He would help others and do nice things for his fiancée in the manner of any other guy with good values.

Despite a ridiculously awful childhood, a loathsome and deadly progressive disease, social barriers,  and every bit of crap luck that goes with any other person’s life, Pete was an ordinary guy with a good heart. His natural resilience made you forget in a moment that you were talking to someone this profoundly unfortunate; it was just Pete. It wasn’t heroic, or some feat of overcoming to be patronized by the sentimental, or a great success at denial. He recognized and acknowledged the huge disaster and at once led a life that paid no rent to Death.

Pete just wanted a regular life, and he worked harder to get one that anyone I’ve known. I won’t insult him with a romantic picture of his life and say that he won. The disease won and tortured him to death in his youth. But here’s what he knew: a terrible misfortune is no reason to turn your life upside down.

So here’s to Peter Brayman, an ordinary guy and a great friend. May we all come this close to winning.

My War with Indie Rock

I started to write this thing and did it all wrong. There was a long-winded history of how “indie rock” happened, an examination of my own part in that, and then a whole list of reasons why “indie” gives me a headache. Dumped.

I know what I can’t stand “indie,” and it’s because “indie” is me. Indie rock has all my generation’s vices and even worse, all of my personal artistic crimes. I list these below:

Narcissism. False naivete. Excessive pastiche and homage in place of creativity. An aristocratic disdain for the popular. Rigidity. Excessive irony. Warmed-over modernism. Obscurantism. And no goddamn songs.

I keep having these Emperor’s New Clothes moments where I hear a breathy little girl voice over some feedback, or someone dropping a Velvet Underground quote into ten minutes of detuned guitar wiggling. I know what you’re doing there! You don’t have any songs or any substance, and you know your audience won’t care as long as you follow the style guide! You suck!

I like strange, challenging sound. My favorite artists include industrial bands that sound like a broken dishwasher, jazz that goes SKWONK, scary insane singer/songwriters, medieval European music, Central Asian wailing. No way do I want everyone to sound like Tom Petty.

And I still love pastiche, and quotes, and irony. And I still love Dada and the modernist revolt, 100 years later.

And I can’t fucking stand Klosterman and his celebration of everything popular for the sake of its popularity. That’s just this same attitude turned inside out, with extra patronizing.

I just want people to make good art instead of following rules. And this is especially true when the rules are the ones I rigidly clung to when I was 18 and a shining knight of the avant weird. At least two generation of musicians have looked to the “indie” of 1985 and duplicated it exactly, from the square glasses to the narcissism. Stop! Make a different thing!

So in conclusion, my war on indie rock is a war on my own failings as well as my generation’s. My appeal to indie rockers is: Please stop being me. I’m tired of me. Be more surprising.

Notes from a drive

I drove all around Southern California tonight.

Notable:

I was nearly knocked off the road by the Spanish-language Bush Beans promotional truck, a full-sized pickup truck covered with bean inducements.

I passed a store called PEANUT DUDES which had a banner advertising peanutdudes.com. Unfortunately the domain doesn’t work.

The Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor at night are a stunning sight. Container ships the size of town, sky-clawing cranes, and everything lit up like Christmas. It’s a spaceport. I bet a lot of locals have never been over the Vincent Thomas Bridge or up 103 and seen the refineries and ships and all that infrastructure glowing in the dark.

And speaking of spaceports, that part of town is a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

I got out of the house and went to a social event! Woo. Nice time at xtreme_pr0k‘s house. Good to see maineiac_eric and others I hadn’t seen in forever, plus a new and fun girl who punched me in the stomach.

Anyway, it was good to do something other than be at home or at the coffeehouse or, wait, those were the only two.

The cat is punching me in the ankle.

it’s okay, it’s okay. it’s okay?

Tonight I drove my mother and her friend to South Coast Rep to see a play, and had a beer at Karl Strauss.

I talked to the bartender and the guy next to me at the bar and they made sense about politics, which was refreshing. In particular they were both against the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. Not because they had much interest in LGBT people. In fact, they were both a bit nervous about gay people. They just didn’t want to go out of their way to be jerks to people for no good reason. One guy had a girlfriend who was religious and backed the thing, and he said “Why should she care? They’re not coming to her church. Just leave it alone.”

Life storms lately. The election, the crazy financial crash, family and friends having serious troubles, my own minor but constant troubles. Safe harbors elude everyone. It reminds me of the early 1990s, when everything lacked: money, safety, calm, health.

I dream about Heaven sometimes. I’m in some unknown but friendly place, at a table with food and drink. Friends and enemies are there, and people I’ve lost. We’re all relieved because all THAT bullshit is behind us, and we’re getting along.

Tonight at the bar was a little of that. Thank you.

This is our last dance, this is ourselves.

I love this song.

I first heard it while at the Miller’s Outpost jeans store on 17th Street in Costa Mesa, California. I was probably shopping for back-to-school jeans or something.

I can still see the whole store in my mind, the shelves full of jeans against the back wall in every color in variety especially. Boot cut, easy fit, black, white, dark and light blue, with that distinctive denim smell.

The terror of knowing what this world is about…

City of dude’s shoulders

I ride the train to Los Angeles once a week now. It’s a good deal in a number of ways. It costs $17 round trip in pre-tax dollars. It’s less stressful and less wasteful than driving, and safer.

The train goes backstage in Southern California. The path goes through infrastructure, industry, and poverty. Huge warehouses stretch blocks in each direction. Hundreds of trucks fill acres of parking lots. Freight trains take a solid minute to go by at blurry speeds, dragging steel girders and tanks of plastic granules and stacked bulldozers and mysterious bumpy tarped plinths.

In one yard a crane holds up a locomotive while workers wrench on it from below. In another, a gigantic wooden beam three feet on a side stretches to the horizon. Huge junkyards hold crushed cubes of metal.

People live right up against the tracks and keep their style. One tiny house shows off a backyard entirely full of cactus. A pudgy Mexican dad floats in his pool as we roar by. Gang members argue next to an old Monte Carlo with a flat.

If you drive the freeway you see a million Dennys and gas stations and malls and orderly little suburban box homes.

Ride the rails and you’ll remember: Los Angeles isn’t tinseltown, it’s the biggest port on the West Coast and a Chicago’s worth of trains and trucks and warehouses and factories spewing steel and oil and toxic tanks and aircraft parts all over the world.

So this one’s for Commerce, California. Keep the hard hats on and pay your union dues, L.A. The people on the train see you, anyway.

I don’t think I’ll be feeling the noiz today thanks

On the occasion of Kevin DuBrow’s death, an anecdote:

I used to work with the king of copy editors, A. He was perfect at his job: knew everything, meticulous, obstinate. A very nice guy outside of work also. He was slender and carried himself in an effeminate way, and had long brown hair parted in the middle.

A. was also seriously into heavy metal music. This was the late 80s, when metal and glam and pop-metal were king, and he was way into that scene. Aside from the long hair it’s not something one would have expected, but A. was full of unexpected.

One day someone mentioned Quiet Riot and he said “Oh, I have a story there.”

Years and years previous, A. had been shopping at the Ralphs market on Sunset at Poinsettia in West Hollywood. This is colloquially known as the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ralphs” because it’s right next to the Strip and all the guitar stores.

A. was pushing his cart along looking for peas or something when he noticed a rocker dude trying to get his attention. The guy was very excited and grinning widely.

“Hey!” he said. “Do you play an instrument?”

A. said “Uh yes. I play bass. why?”

“I’ll tell you why. I’m Kevin Dubrow and I’m starting up the best heavy metal band in history. You’ve got the look and the attitude I want. YOU WANNA JOIN UP?”

There was a pause of about five seconds and A. declined the offer politely. Dubrow roared on off to find his next perfect metalhead.

I asked A. if he regretted not getting on the Quiet Riot ride and he said no, he couldn’t handle the lifestyle as much as he loved the music.

A. only wore tailored clothes and spoke with a refined, aristocratic accent. He was able to pass as gay well enough to work for years at a gay publication, but from what I heard his dating preference was for the Pamela Anderson type. Oh! And he’d been a pool shark previously in life, but had to give it up because he was too small to collect.