Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

A Lot to Laugh, A Train to Cry

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A train of thought is never more fascinating than when you are heading down the tracks of one. A while ago, my wife reminded me that she had thrown away my tape collection. It was a series of large wooden racks, filled with cassette tapes of Grateful Dead shows from 1968 to 1991. I had labored over the course of years to procure them from other collectors, and to record them in real-time from one deck to another. Hundreds of hours of tape. I had meticulously labeled them and drew on them and colored them. I had my favorites for one reason or another, and really the whole thing represented a real document not only of the Grateful Dead, but a memorial of my life (or a very large chunk of it) in a way that few things could. She had thrown them away quite a long time ago, and she mentioned it to me the other day in a way of (I suspect) approaching some gesture of atonement. It occurred to me as I rode my train of thought today, that if she really were to experience my brand of forgiveness (admittedly I failed basic compassion and humanity in school, or was conspicuously absent that day), I would require that she hear the complete tale of my tape collection, and why it was so important to me. Mind you, I would do this in a great spirit of explaining the greater mysteries of life (which is of course my duty to her) while using my tape collection as a vehicle by which to illuminate the wonders of life and all creation. By this time, the train of my mind was in full motion, rolling down the track. And so now, this particular tale, I feel, should be told not only for the benefit of my dear wife, but for posterity.

I suppose all this came about because I was recently putting some bookshelves together in my office, so the idea of gathering and organizing things that belong in a collection with some system of archiving them was, I suppose, on the fore of my mind. I was feeling quite good about shelving my books. I did so by category, alphabetically by author. As a result, I thought about other things in need of such archiving around the house, and of course the DVDs and CDs came to mind. In considering the CDs, I recollected the recording medium of yore—the cassette tape. I considered that the CD itself is likely already a dead medium for preserving audio and data, and if I were to get deeply involved in organizing the CDs around the house, I would likely experience the sadness and loss of something that I spent so much time collecting, much like the loss of that old tape collection. Now, most of the music I could ever want to gain access to is available in digital form on clouds and computers all over the ether of our digital universe, so I took the loss of that tape collection in a kind of stride.

I have a particular issue with things that physically represent the past. Photo albums tend to confuse me. It seems that there is a chaos and confusion to having a bunch of shit cluttering up one’s living space that points inexorably to the past. It is a strange double-bind, the desire to remember and the urge to move forward. So memories in boxes have become a deeply personal, literary metaphor in my life and my work (see Junk: A Memoir, soon to hit shelves wherever books are stored).

In any case, my tape collection. As I rode the rails of this thinking, I recalled the origin of my tape collection, and this is the tale that is worth hearing. When I was in seventh grade, a boy came to my school. Robbie Steel. He was a few grades above me, in high school. He had transferred from Exeter, and was joining a tightly knit group of kids already quite bonded, but Robbie seemed to fit right in. While the school uniform was a blazer and tie, Robbie modified the dress code slightly by adding ripped jeans with patchwork on them. He kept a silken gypsy scarf on his shaven head. He wore a turquoise earring in his ear. In his eyes was the brightest light of life. Glowing in his face was a great mischief and joy. He made me smile whenever I saw his lanky figure climbing the stairs in our school, with his threadbare knapsack over his shoulder. He would grin at me curiously, as if he were in on some secret mischief I had yet to be privy. It turned out that his baldness was because of the chemotherapy treatments he was undergoing for bone cancer. Robbie had a sister, Courtney, who was my friend. She, too, had that light in her eyes—a secret held in her heart, that life was some form of wonderful mystery, that she revealed only to those in her presence. Her hair was long and frizzy, wild like autumn, and it made me feel a kind of freedom I longed for. Her voice was smooth and liquid, words rolling off her tongue in the most playful, sweet and chiding manner. She teased and laughed and was vulnerable and smart, and I loved her.

I went over to her house once, and Robbie was there with two or three girls in his room. He was teasing them and tickling them and playing with them and they loved it. He had this radio. He had painted it with day-glow colors, not one inch of it was uncovered with his designs and patterns. He was playing Scarlet -> Fire on it, full volume, when I heard it for the first time. I didn’t know it was the Grateful Dead, nor did I know the name of the song or anything. It just got in my head. Music. That sense of wonder and rhythm and joy and excitement when you hear a song that catches you. I think I called it ‘that fire song.’ I wanted to know that song, to sing it, to make it mine somehow. I wanted to paint my own radio just like him, so I did. I got fluorescent paint and covered every inch of my boom-box with ripples of color and rivers and fire and electricity. And I wore a bandana on my head, just like a pirate. Just like Robbie.

When he died, Robbie was a senior in high school, and I went to his memorial. It was at that Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home place on Madison Avenue and 79th Street. I wasn’t into the Dead yet, interestingly, but that day brought me closer to the gates. His radio was there, painted, just like Robbie’s vivid soul, playing the Grateful Dead. Terrapin Station. And He’s Gone. I think. I wept there, listening to his music. And the pastor quoting the Grateful Dead. My first brush with loss. Deep loss.

Before he passed, I went off to prep school. As Robbie came, so I went. We were going different directions. New ones coming as the old ones go. It was there I started my tape collection. It wasn’t much at first. University of Vermont, 1983. Scarlet -> Fire. The memory and spirit of Robbie was alive somewhere in that tape. I added to the collection over time. I bought tape covers and painted them. I made my own in crude attempts to reproduce the art of the Dead. Every concert tape was a strange prize, filled with the smells and sounds and movements of the people who were there that day.

I didn’t see Courtney very much, but between the time I finished high school and was headed off to Berkeley for “college,” I was fairly well identified as a Deadhead. Courtney noticed, and she gave me one of Robbie’s tapes, from his collection. It was Lake Placid, NY from October 17, 1983. I was, I suppose, ready to receive it. I was honored to have it. A piece of Robbie. A piece that maybe I could understand better by then. I often wonder where in the cosmic mists he is, why he had come here for such a short time—and how grateful I felt to have been in the presence of his living soul, for however brief. He was always there in that music, as a vapor, or a spirit, or an entity that seemed to be called from one world to another. In his own way to me, a mystery.

It was a day sometime between summer of graduation and the first day of college that I got a call from a friend. Courtney had been killed by a drunk driver. A mortgage banker in a nice car struck her on Second Avenue late in the evening as she was leaving a pub. He kept going. As strange as this is, I was totally unaware that Robbie’s tape was in my tape deck, cued up at To Lay Me Down, a rather poignant song (here’s two verses):

To lay me down
once more
To lay me down
with my head
in sparkling clover
Let the world go by
all lost in dreaming
To lay me down
one last time
To lay me down

To be with you
once more
To be with you
with our bodies
close together
Let the world go by
like clouds a-streaming
To lay me down
one last time
To lay me down

I wept when I saw the tape in the deck, for Courtney and Robbie and their family. Too much loss for one family. That was twenty-five years ago, but the entire phenomenon still touches me in a place I am sometimes unable to even reach or access.

I understand that sometimes we fill our garages and our closets and our lives with things that tie us to the past. Many of it is just trash. Every life needs its spring cleaning. Sometimes we need to get rid of the clutter, and ask ourselves why we hold onto some things. I labor sometimes to discern between what is worth holding onto and what I must throw away. But I wouldn’t mind having that tape from Lake Placid in my hands again, so I can hold it one more time.

2 Responses

Wow! You’ve really captured a time, a place and the people who were there. Congratulations Alex. I look forward to “Junk”.

  • Well, I feel horrible now, and I believe much of your tape collection is still to be found somewhere. My heart is crying that I did such an insensitive thing.

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