When playing in a band produces a high that never lasts, one is forced to look elsewhere for fulfillment. But how can Judaism compare to Fuzzy Walter?
"The secret to driving in New York is to tailgate cabs until you're good enough to cut them off."
We were doing 70 m.p.h. as we hit the sharp right at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge going into Manhattan.
"The next thing is to watch the 'Don't Walk' signs. Hit the gas when they start flashing."
Botz was driving and talking. He felt it was important to teach me about the practical things most people overlooked. I'd soon learn about garlic and the wonders of the digestive system.
Our banana yellow 1978 Dodge Aspen wagon was moving cross-town at breath-taking speed. Somebody honked.
"New York cops will never bust you for a moving violation. In New York we have real crime."
Botz was expounding upon the never-ending list of advantages to New York living. I was a newcomer from Boston. These insights were crucial for my development.
Botz and I shared an apartment in Park Slope with another guy. The three of us played music, but we weren't making any money. Botz sold life insurance. I did surveys over the telephone.
There were times that we'd hit a level of extra-sensory communication and go intergalactic.
An old acquaintance called me out of the blue. He was now booking a club in Hoboken. He offered me a Thursday night for $200 and a $30 bar tab. I took the gig. I hired my roommates as the other musicians and a band was born. Soon we were playing regularly with an occasional road trip. Botz turned me on to Frankie Valli and AM radio.
The Hoboken gig evolved into a fairly steady weekend job. We'd start around 11:30 and play into the wee hours of the night. We were a decent band, but there were times when we went beyond ourselves. In most bands, the members need constant eye contact and body gesticulations in order to communicate musically. By us, this was unnecessary. If I wanted to create a certain mood or texture, Botz would telepathically anticipate what I was going to do and be right there with me. It was amazing.
There were times, usually around 1 a.m. when the beer began to affect us, that we'd hit a level of extra-sensory communication and go intergalactic. The walls would begin to pulsate. The lights would grow dim. The usually packed crowd would stop everything and just listen. Everyone there was aware that something bigger than all of us was happening. I never wanted it to end. This was why I played music! This was why I was living! I was tickling the soft white underbelly of existence, and I loved it. I was wading knee-deep in the funk of life.
LOOKING FOR A PERPETUAL HIGH
I wanted it to go on and on and on and on.
But it always ended. Inevitably the club would close. We'd have to pack up our stuff ourselves and head back to Brooklyn alone. The feeling was gone by the time we got all our equipment back to our space and went out for breakfast before going to bed. The great transcendental high just hours before was fleeting and fading.
"The parasystolic effects of coffee are quite remarkable," Botz would say looking up from his fried eggs and hashbrowns. "Just the mere sound of the percolator gets my body rumbling. Have you ever used coffee filters as toilet paper? They work just as good."
I began reading Henry Miller and hanging out in Prospect Park. I grew depressed. Why wasn't life as real as those moments when the band was plugged-in?
I shaved my head and became a conservative. Nothing.
I wrote lyrics and poetry. I thought I was Charles Bukowski. I was miserable.
I wrote lyrics and poetry. I thought I was Charles Bukowski. I was miserable. Nothing could cheer me up. Something was missing.
The World Trade Center blew up on my 25th birthday. I took this as a sign -- it was time to get out of New York. I figured I'd go to Paris. I could be like Henry Miller. Maybe if I lived like a real artist I could recreate that on-stage feeling off-stage. I'd live on French bread, drink cheap white wine, and scam free rooms. I left my band, quit my job, said goodbye to my apartment and bought an open-ended ticket. Something big needed to happen.
I spent the next five months moving east across Europe. I stayed in cheap hotels. I crashed on people's floors. I played guitar in the streets. I read voraciously. I was open to everything. I stayed up all night talking art, politics, religion, whatever it was with whomever cared to listen. I was becoming the most pretentious person alive. I felt electric. I was free.
For some reason the outside world began to take an interest in my Jewishness. Total strangers and fellow travelers would approach me and ask me if I was Jewish. I couldn't figure out why this was happening. Maybe Europeans had a keener sense of who was a Jew than Americans did. They'd hated us longer. It began to occur to me that maybe being Jewish meant something.
I went to Poland and wandered through the old Jewish ghost towns. What could it be?
I went to Turkey. I heard about the Oslo Accords. I could smell the history in the making. I had to go to Israel.
I ended up in Jerusalem. I danced at Damascus Gate with the newly independent Palestinians.
I stayed in Israel for about a year. I began to explore my Judaism. Something was happening to me. The culture, the people, my heritage, everything overwhelmed me. I couldn't get enough. I lacked the ability to articulate what I was feeling. I was connecting to my people in a way I couldn't describe. I was plugging into something bigger than myself. For the first time in life I stopped playing music and I didn't care.
I began to get lost in my new Jewish world. I grew a beard. I wanted to live in the desert and meditate all day. I wanted to be Abraham. I was the "Earth Jew." I was one with my new cosmic Jewish Earth culture. I was on fire. I was in heaven.
And then I was back in New York. My cousin was getting married and my mother insisted I come.
Nobody could understand me. My family thought I was a space alien.
Nobody could understand me. My family thought I was a space alien. I looked for Botz. He'd spent the last year on the road touring with an old blues musician. He was in town visiting his mother.
We met downtown. "You're one of them beanie-wearing-Heebs," he told me.
We roamed the streets looking for kosher food. I tried to explain to him what I was going through. He was interested but distracted. It was summer time and mini-skirts were in.
"That's number twenty-seven." Botz yelled. "I can't believe it! She's not really blond though."
It went on and on like this. I fled uptown. I took refuge in the house of an old abstract painter I knew for three days. We talked nonstop about everything. Avant-garde records played continuously in the background. We talked about music. We talked about the blues. We talked about Fuzzy Walter.
FUZZY WALTER VS. LIFE
"If Fuzzy Walter offered you a gig, would you take it?"
"Sure I would," I said.
"Isn't that a contradiction?"
"On the one hand you want to be 'Earth Jew' and yet you'd go touring with Fuzzy Walter?"
He was right. I didn't know how to answer him. I'd left my whole world behind but I still wanted my old life. And then the question hit me: What was wrong with playing with Fuzzy Walter?
I went back to Israel a mess. Months went by. I couldn't sleep. Fuzzy Walter? Earth Jew? I was going crazy.
The real question was, "Would I want Fuzzy Walter as my dad?"
My eyes were pulled open a few months later. The question was all wrong! Of course there was nothing wrong with playing with Fuzzy Walter. The real question was, "Would I want Fuzzy Walter as my dad?"
Inside the world of Fuzzy Walter, nobody could touch him. He created a special energy. He brought people to a higher level. But what about the rest of his life? The guy was a mess. Womanizer, drug addict, never at home. His music was fantastic, but what about him?
I realized my goal as a musician and my goal as a Jew were exactly the same. I wanted to be knee-deep in the funk 24/7. The only difference was that music was limited to music. When the music was over it was over. What about the rest of the time? How did it offer transcendence in real life?
Instead of getting lost in the world of music or art, instead of tapping into the cosmic fabric via a canvas, Judaism was telling me: Let life be your canvas.
Torah was a system to help me tap into the groove-energy thing all the time. Every moment in life is an opportunity for transcendence.
Music is great, but it is limited. Life is unlimited. Every moment is thick with potential.
I walked into my new world a new man. I played my guitar. I’d never sounded this good before.
Heaven on Earth.
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