An excerpt from I Buried Paul
Milestones are seldom what they’re cracked up to be, unless you’re a charmed preppie who inherits the Hallmark gene. My first time kissing a girl turned out to be a mercy stunt, engineered by some douchey linebacker on the junior varsity. Th e most memorable thing about getting my driver’s license was that I had no car, and my parents’ station wagon was never available. When I put on the cap and gown for high school graduation, it felt like I was going to a Halloween party, dressed as a fraud.
As I went on to achieve my own versions of milestones, none of them would adhere to society’s definitions or timetable. Instead, they appeared out of the blue like stealth jack-in-the-boxes. How was I to know that the fourth kiss from my third girlfriend would be the portal to life-changing sex? Or that on my first solo plane trip at eighteen, I’d be moved to First Class and treated like a VIP, despite having accomplished nothing? Or that shortly after the plane touched down, I would never again look at the world the same way.
It’s not that I’m against the element of surprise. I’m just convinced it would be a lot less stressful to be the Hallmark guy.
Rarely has anyone so relished the opportunity to visit Bixby, Oklahoma, in August, where the average temperature hovers around ninety-one degrees with seventy-five percent humidity. But I hadn’t come for the sod-growing convention or to attend prayer breakfasts at Oral Roberts University. My mission was to spend a week with my big brother, Eddie Kozlowski, lead guitarist for the popular, small-venue cover band, Traction. Fourteen years my senior, Eddie had invited me to join him on a leg of his Midwest tour, and, after shameless begging on my part, Mom and Dad agreed to let me go. They spent most of their Sunday mornings praying for Eddie to come to his senses and reconsider an intern position with Bob Snell, an accountant they knew.
As far as I was concerned, my brother surpassed Neil Armstrong in the role model department. Perhaps if Neil had once slept on the top bunk in my room, he’d have the edge, but I had witnessed firsthand how hard Eddie worked to become a rock star. Even though his band didn’t write original material and might, on occasion, play a bar catty- corner to a wheat field, I was convinced that my brother had reached the Promised Land. He had figured out a way to not be a lawyer or a CPA and make a living doing the thing he loved most—which was the thing I loved most.
I’d never seen a better smile than the one on Eddie’s face the day he pulled up to Tulsa International in the band’s beat-up Econoline. To be fair, I couldn’t make out his upper lip, given the Lemmy Kilmister mustache he’d been growing since the beginning of the tour, but it took more than facial hair to contain Eddie’s spirit.
As I emerged from baggage claim, he shouted “Jimmy the K!”, bolted out of the van, and proceeded to hug me so hard I feared for my upper vertebrae. “Look at that hair!” Eddie exclaimed, tousling my shoulder-length locks that paled in comparison to his layered Bon Jovi ’do.
I felt blessed to be included in his world, and not just because of the music. Most of my friends had complicated relationships with their brothers, but Eddie and I were always stoked to be in each other’s company. Maybe we got along so well because the difference in age ruled out any sort of competition between us, but my guess is that even had we been twins, I could never compete with him.
“Gonna be a killer show tonight, little bro!” He slapped me on the back. “You’re gonna love Oklahoma!”
I already did. The first night would be Bixby, the next, Tulsa, the following night, the college town of Norman, then Oklahoma City. You always heard about musicians hating the grind of the road, but to Eddie it was salvation. Before he started touring with Traction, he’d spent most of his life on Long Island, so, to him, each stop was a new adventure, no matter how small the town, shitty the club, or meager the crowd. Since I’d grown up just like Eddie, I felt the same way, even though my stint on the tour would only amount to seven days. “So, what are the motel rooms like?” I had to ask.
“Phenomenal,” Eddie said. “Every night a clean bed, every morning a big-ass mess to remind us of all the partying we did.”
“I wish I didn’t have to go to college,” I muttered, lost in the moment. My musical abilities couldn’t hold a candle to Eddie’s, but after sitting in his van for two minutes, I wanted to ride around in it forever.
“Plenty of time to play music,” he assured me. “Your education is only going to help.”
I thought of how happy Dad would be to hear Eddie’s speech. Then it occurred to me that maybe they had cut a deal whereby I’d be allowed to visit, provided Eddie encouraged me to stick with my college plan. I decided to put the dark cloud of academia out of my mind, not wanting anything to spoil my first night on tour.
Soon we were driving through towns with names like Broken Arrow and Jenks, and, a few minutes later, pulling into the parking lot of the Bixby Holiday Inn. Eddie said that before we headed up to the room, he wanted to show me the lounge where he’d be performing that night. I followed him through the entrance and into a dark, smoky space out of a forties film noir. In front of us stood a nondescript bar populated by a couple of red-faced farmer-types who looked as if they’d been sitting there since the Korean War. The farmers glanced over in our direction, their expressions exuding “who invited this hippie scum?” Twenty years after the Summer of Love, these guys still held a grudge, wearing their entrenchment like a badge of honor. Eddie paid them no mind and led me to the other side of the bar where, at the center of the tiny stage area, sat a drum kit with the word “Traction” plastered across the kick drum beneath the Ludwig insignia. The guitar stands and mics were set up, the other instruments still in their motel rooms. “I think it’ll be a good crowd tonight, Jimbo,” he said, pumping his fist for good measure.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know. I just think it’ll be good, and usually I’m right.”
I wasn’t about to question a professional. At the same time, I was clear-headed enough to recognize that a lounge in Bixby was not the most distinguished performance space for a guitar god to showcase his power.
What made my brother believe that a Holiday Inn thirty miles outside of Tulsa was worthy of his rock ‘n’ roll dreams? Eddie explained that there were a whole lot of Holiday Inns which, when you added up all the people who heard and enjoyed his music on a nightly basis, was nothing to sneeze at. “Keep your eyes on the prize, but while you’re looking—rock on.”
Normally the band didn’t have dinner until after the show, but once we dropped off my suitcase in the room, Eddie asked if I was hungry. I said yes, and he took me out for pizza. At the restaurant, we were treated to a few more disdainful looks, after which I asked about Gene Klein, the rhythm guitarist and leader of Traction, who’d grown up in our neighborhood and had planted the rock ‘n’ roll seed in Eddie’s head.
“Gene’s Gene. Found his calling as a toddler and never looked back. In Red Cloud, Nebraska, he’s like Van Halen.”
“That’s insane.” It really was when you considered the history. Gene’s father had been a Holocaust survivor whose approach to life was to be as invisible as possible, and here was his son, strutting his stuff across a swath of the country that viewed Jews as cheap novelty items. From my brother’s point of view, Gene Klein was bigger than bigotry. Rock ‘n’ roll supremacy had made him an exclusive, in-demand party favor.
I offered Eddie a slice of pepperoni, which he refused, explaining that the grease would screw up his stomach and get in the way of the evening’s guitar shredding. When I asked which songs the band would be playing, he said it would be cooler for me to be surprised by the setlist. Of course it would be cooler. My brother’s ideas were always one step ahead of mine.
Eddie wanted to know about things at home. I told him it was the same as always: Mom and Dad worrying about finances, missing him, wishing they could have come along. Suddenly, we both burst out laughing. It went without saying that if our parents had the money for two more plane tickets, they would have gladly made me sacrifice my coveted week of freedom so they could observe their other son “wasting his life.” A direct quote.
We returned to the motel, and Eddie excused himself to get ready for the show. Showers had to be taken, hair begged to be blown dry, outfits were in need of assembly. I volunteered to go down to the lounge while I waited for show time, and Eddie said I’d probably enjoy that more than hanging around the room.
It was an empowering feeling, returning to that divey place by myself, bellying up to the now farmerless bar; ordering the first of what would likely amount to four ginger ales. Little by little, the lounge started to fill up, an equal mix of Holiday Inn guests and local kids in their twenties,
ready for a night on the town in the only place that could deliver one. Traction was billed to go on at 8, but at 8:45 or so there was still no sign of Eddie or the rest of the guys. I managed to exchange a few glances with a cute redhead, who’d arrived with maybe five girlfriends. After a few cat-and-mouse volleys, she wandered over to my table to introduce herself.
“Hey, I’m Toni.”
“Usually, the guy comes over to my table and asks to buy me a drink, but I guess there’s a lot of us, and you’re kind of shy.”
Shy and underage was the truth of it. “I would have come over to you but … I left my ID at home,” I explained.
“That won’t be a problem, since I have mine.” Pulling her license out of her bra, Toni went on to tell me that I would be buying her a vodka tonic, and would I like to buy myself one as well?
“Sure,” I said, as the beginning of Independence Week had gone from zero to sixty at warp speed. Still, when Toni held out her hand for the cash, it took me back to the mortifying Makeout Fakeout of 1985, and I began looking around for suspicious linebacker types. There didn’t seem to be anybody matching that description, and the last thing I wanted was to come off as a dweeb, so I slapped a ten and a five in her hand. Around 9:15, just as Toni stepped up to the bar, the room went black. Two or three minutes later, the crowd started to murmur, wondering if what they assumed was the start of the show was, in fact, a power outage.
“Jimmy?” I heard Toni’s voice shout out.
“I’m over here.”
“I have your drink.”
Power outage be damned, at least I wasn’t getting punked again. “I’m holding out my arm,” I told her, reaching around until my hand somehow connected with my drink. “Here’s the chair,” I instructed, guiding her to the seat next to me. Once Toni sat down, I found myself becoming intoxicated by whatever citrusy scent was emanating from her pores. I leaned in closer, figuring I could always blame an inadvertent head-bump on the dark.
“Cheers,” she said, and after two near misses, we managed to clink glasses. Then, after only one near-miss, she kissed me.
In a split second, my priorities changed from desperately wanting to hear my brother’s band to hoping the blackout lasted till morning. Having no clue as to when the lights would come on again, Toni and I acted as if we needed to accomplish as much as possible in Dark Time, however long that turned out to be. Deep, hungry kisses, the squeezing of breasts and seizing of crotches, all in what could’ve been five seconds or five minutes. Suddenly I felt Toni pull away. She dropped to the floor, unzipped my fly and set to work. Independence Week, Day One, had veered off the track and was now bound for the stratosphere. As much as I wanted to enjoy my good fortune, I was young and nervous. I tried deep breathing, which did the trick until my eighth or ninth inhale —when the stage lights came up. Toni jumped back to her seat and we both tried our best to compose ourselves. It turned out not to matter because nobody was interested in us anyway. All eyes were on Gene, who had launched into the opening chords of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Seconds later, Toni was up out of her chair, bouncing to the beat, and looking at me on the line: “you’re happy when I’m on my knees.”
It might have been a tiny room in Nowheresville, but to the Bixby crowd, this was the Roxy and the Bottom Line and the Fillmore all rolled into one. Gene took total command of the stage, and Eddie made him look even better, adding power chords, arpeggios—whatever managed to convey maximum energy without coming off showy. From what I could tell, the bass player and drummer didn’t have a fraction of Eddie’s talent or Gene’s charisma. Their playing was serviceable enough, but they were poseurs. The crowd didn’t seem to care as the band uncorked one pulsating delight after the next (“Addicted to Love,” “Jump,” “Vicious”), the adrenaline pumping faster with each successive tune. Then, just as the night looked as if it had peaked, Traction took it to the next level, dipping into the punk catalog. Eddie sang lead on the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck,” without ever uttering the f-word himself. He left that to the crowd, which gobbled up the bait.
Two hours went by in what seemed like twenty minutes, but the best was yet to come. Gene launched into the finale, a Ramones medley that started with “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” and closed with a sick cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” As the band took their bows, the crowd gave them a standing O, and Toni took advantage of the moment to give me a giant hug. We were several vodkas in by then, but she seemed a lot further gone, perhaps having gotten a head start earlier in the evening. “I loved that band so much,” she said, her voice sounding grief-stricken at the thought of never seeing Traction again.
“They’re the best,” I said. “Wanna meet them?”
“You know these guys?” Toni sprang to full attention at the prospect.
“The lead guitarist is my brother. I’m sure there’s gonna be a party after.”
“Omigod, you’re amazing.” Toni’s kiss was so intense, I wondered if it might be yet another portal to the beyond.
While I helped Eddie and the band break down the gear, Toni and her friends hung out in the bar, continuing to knock back cocktails. An hour and a half later, the whole bunch of us were hanging in Gene’s room, which he shared with the bass player, a quiet, Bill Wyman-type who, for reasons I had yet to learn, went by the name “Spoon.” Toni now seemed less interested in ushering me through uncharted portals than in getting to know the members of Traction. Much to her delight, Eddie was blasting Hüsker Du’s “Celebrated Summer” on the boombox, and drummer Larry Lizzardo (né Kantrowitz) earned her applause when he announced that it was “party time.” Although Eddie had prepped me for the nightly bacchanals of the road, I was nevertheless confused when Spoon whipped out what looked like a light bulb and a steel scrubber, not unlike the one our mother used to do the dishes.
My brother shot Spoon a disapproving look. “Can we not do this tonight, please?”
“You don’t have to. Nobody does, unless they want to. Anybody?”
Lizzardo and the girls were eager to join in. The light bulb turned out to be a crack pipe, the scrubber, its filter.
Eddie told me to go back to his room. He needed to stay to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. I told him I wanted to hang just a little while, since I was the one who had invited Toni and her friends. I was curious to see how the evening would play out, and if Toni would revisit the enterprise she’d initiated in the hallowed dark.
In addition to DIY crack opportunities, the room was fully stocked with all manner of alcohol and weed. This crowd was not only up to the challenge but would leave no trace. Spoon, Lizzardo and the girls chugged Wild Turkey in between hits, until a couple of them looked as if they were about to pass out. Somehow, they pressed on. I got up the nerve and went over to Toni to ask how she was doing, but rather than answer my question, she stood up, walked right past me, and planted her mouth on Gene’s. Once she began heading in a southerly direction, I turned away, only to find Toni’s friend, Robin, sitting on my brother’s lap, and Spoon and Lizzardo starting to peel articles of clothing off the other girls. As things continued to get hotter, Eddie kept one eye on the groupies and the other on me, until I finally gave up on Toni and headed back to his room. Naturally, it hurt to get tossed aside on what had promised to be a triumphant first night of freedom, but a part of me understood. Toni was older, plus these guys had already invested the time and done the work. They were the band.
Was it really like this every night? I had to wonder. I wasn’t crazy about the getting-wasted part, but the rest of it sure beat filling out 1040 forms with Bob Snell. I also knew that with my beginner’s musical skills, it would be an arduous climb to get anywhere near the level I needed to be. Yet despite the odds, in that moment, I, Jimmy Kozlowski, the brother from the lower bunk, made a vow to work my ass off, become a real bass player, and maybe somewhere down the line, find a Toni who would walk past another guy to be with me.