16 ALBUMS THAT WERE SIGNIFICANT TO ME

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220px-Warmjetsvinyl.jpg9.) My freshman year of college, 1974, my roommate was this cool guy who was a total rock’n’roll freak. He had this huge record collection and we had hundreds and hundreds of rock records lining the walls of our dorm. He had all the ’60s classics, and lots of ’70s prog rock, and all the latest English glitter bands — like Roxy Music and T. Rex — that i had never listened to (he also played guitar in a local Kiss cover band, wearing all the make-up and platform shoes and played gigs at high school dances — Cleveland rocks!!).

Anyways, this Brian Eno album — Here Comes the Warm Jets — was my favorite of his whole collection. Great, well-crafted pop songs, with a zany, almost lunatic, sense of humor, and really innovative and experimental sounds.

So things were going great until mid-way through the school year my roomie had a spiritual epiphany and became a Born Again Christian. He cut off his long hippie hair, started carrying a Bible with him everywhere he went, and hanging out with these straight-laced Christian guys. One afternoon him and two of his Born Again buddies came up to our dorm room and they systematically destroyed everyone of his records, one by one. Because rocknroll was a tool of Satan — the evil one — to lead the youth astray.

So, sadly, I didn’t get to listen to my favorite Eno album anymore after that.

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10.) In 1976, after having flamed out after one year of college, for lack of anything better to do I moved back to my parent’s house in the suburbs of New Jersey, to lick my wounds.

Up to this point the Beatles — and John Lennon in particular — had been my guiding light as sort of the role model of my youth. And they had been with me every step of the way. With each year bringing a new Beatles product — Beatles ’65 and Beatles ’66 and so on, almost like a model of a car that they up-dated every year. And then followed by new Beatles solo albums every year.

But then, by 1976, John Lennon had seemingly flamed out just like me. And disappeared from sight to lick his wounds, too.

So I bought this Lennon greatest hits compilation, Shaved Fish, which, at the time, seemed like the last of the line of John Lennon statements. A wrap-up. So as I listened to it I was also trying to make sense of what the Beatles experience had meant to me. And what it had amounted to. If anything.

And there was this druggy and soporific quality to a lot of the Lennon solo stuff. Compared to the brightness and sharpness of the Beatles stuff. So it really felt, at the point, like the whole Beatles thing had led to a big dead end.

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11.) In 1977 there was all this media hype about the Sex Pistols and “punk rock.” So I figured their record would be a big let-down, like MOST of those media fads turned out to be. This year’s Bay City Rollers, ya know?

But Never Mind the Bullocks turned out to be a great record and lived up to its billing as a bona fide classic. The songs are all surprisingly well-crafted, there’s a great guitar sound, and excellent sonics. And it was completely fresh and exciting. Suddenly it made most of the other rock bands sound flaccid and “corporate” and overly-contrived.

But more important to me, personally, was that Johnny Rotten was my age, 20. And after spending my entire life up to that point living in the shadow of the Sixties Generation and listening to nothing but Sixties re-treads like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Starship. Finally MY generation had a voice.

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12.) In 1980, age 23, I had the first real love affair of my life. I was just a boy trying to be a man, really, as the song goes. Anyways the woman I was madly in love with was a rock’n’roll freak like me. She would regularly scour CREEM and all the other rock magazine to be up to date on all the latest releases. That’s how hip she was. Plus she was sexy as hell. And she happened to buy the first U2 album, Boy, back in 1980. Before most people even knew who U2 were.

I immediately loved the album. Especially the haunting song I Will Follow (“These eyes make a circle when I call your name THESE EYES”). I still think its the best thing U2 ever did. And when I listen to it, I’m often transports me back in time to 1980, and I’m in her haunted house, sitting in her bedroom, listening to I Will Follow.

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13.) It’s funny how certain songs are like time capsules that take you back in time.

This one takes me back to the summer of 1982. I had moved back to Berkeley, age 26, with this burning desire to publish an underground punk rock newspaper. And i lived with my pal Duncan in his dusty little hotel room in the Berkeley Inn for three months while I worked on putting together the first issue.

And as I’d sit at Duncan’s desk working on the layout pages, I would often play this song, When Kings Come Home, as soothing background music. Its from the album Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, & John Fahey. I had never heard of any of them at the time. . . Duncan had this cheap little record player — one of those things that packs into a box with a little speaker built into it. And Duncan had a bunch of old records, mostly stuff he had bought in the ’60s. Simon & Garfunkle, Joan Baez, that kind of stuff.

It’s weird when I think about it, that I was working on making a punk rock newspaper while listening to this particular genre of music. Anyways, I haven’t listened to the song since the summer of 1982. But I finally managed to track it down on Youtube. So I’m mind-tripping my way back into Duncan’s little hotel room while I listen to this one, one more time. . . .

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14.) In 1984 I wrote a novel, JOURNEY THROUGH THE TENDERLOIN: A Pornographic Love Story (later published by Loompanics in 1996 as a novella in one of their Greatest Hits compilations). It’s the story of this young guy who falls in love with a beautiful young stripper, and the misadventures he has while living in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. It was sort of a device for exploring the dynamics between romantic love and sexual attraction — love and lust — and how they often work at cross-purposes and how we often mistake one for the other.

The book was flawed (because, frankly, I didn’t know how to write a novel). But there are a couple of really good scenes. And a good screenwriter could probably turn it into a really good movie. And I always envisioned this song from the packed! album by Chrissie Hynde — When Will I See You — as the perfect theme song for the movie. It’s this wistful song about lost love, with nice, chiming guitar by Johnny Marrs of the Smiths. I always envisioned the song playing at the beginning of the movie, and at the end of the movie, and bits of it interspersed as background music during the course of the movie.

And maybe one day it will be. You never know in this life.

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15.) This CD, Telegraph Street Music, is significant to me because I recorded it myself. For many years I co-published a photo calendar of the Telegraph Avenue street people. So I thought, why don’t I record a CD of the street people, too. So people could hear them as well as see them. So that’s how this one came about.

It featured some of the prominent Telegraph street characters of the time, like Hate Man, Rick Starr, the Rare Man, etc. And some of the more talented street musicians like Michael Masley, Larry the Drummer, Anthony Bledsoe. Plus Ace Backwords. I’d describe the CD as, half interesting music and half interesting characters. It was the soundtrack of my life for the year of 1994. Literally.

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16.) This CD was significant to me because it was the last album ever bought. Back in 2009 I was working as a Telegraph street vendor, and I always had a big boombox at my vending table, and I’d regularly spin the radio dial in search of cool tunes. There was one hit song back then, Epiphany by Chrisette Michelle, that I really got me. This sort of good-love-gone-bad torch song. I used to listen to the local rap station (not my favorite genre of music) simply because they were the only station that played that song.

Finally, I broke down and bought the CD. And I used to smoke pot at my vending stand and play that song over and over and over (which I was wont to do when I was stoned). Until people would finally come up to me and say: “Ace, that’s a very nice song, but would you PLEASE play something else.” Ha ha. Everybody’s a critic.

I stopped buying records and CDs after that. Because, like most people, I mostly listened to music for free on the internet (It must be tough to try and run a record store these days). It’s amazing how you can find just about any song ever recorded on the internet. But nothing beats actually physically holding an album in your hands while you’re listening to it. That’s the best!

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Telegraph Street Music, Volume One

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One of the weirdest scenes I was ever involved in was the year I spent recording a compilation CD of Berkeley street musicians back in 1994. The “Telegraph Street Music” CD. Volume One.
I had spent the previous 9 years working as a cartoonist. Now, cartoonists are basically nerdy, introspective, mild-mannered types. The kind of people that are comfortable sitting by themselves at a drawing board for long stretches of time. So that was the kind of scene I was used to. So I was completely unprepared for immersing myself in the middle of the music scene. Musicians are the exact opposite of cartoonists. They’re wild, aggressively extroverted, exhibitionists, overly emotional. And among the most drugged-out and hard-drinking groups of people there is (I’ve read that only physicians have a higher rate of drug use than musicians). And this was even MORE pronounced among street musicians.

And it’s not hard to understand the high drug and alcohol content among musicians. They regularly gig at bars and nightclubs where booze is the stock in trade. And playing music also goes along with “partying” which is also a big drug and drink scene. And anybody who has ever pounded down a few quick beers to muster the courage to get up on stage and sing karaoke can understand that part of the equation.

Myself, I was taking a lot of psychedelic drugs back then. When I took acid and played music, my music sounded better, more profound, cosmic even. (Of course later I realized, if I really had had any musical talent I wouldn’t have needed the drugs to make it sound good. It would’ve sounded good just on its own.)

I spent a year sort of auditioning all these crazy Berkeley street musicians and setting up all these impromptu jam sessions on street corners. And there was always plenty of pot, booze, crack cocaine, speed, acid, ‘shrooms, you name it, to keep the party going. So for me it was sort of like stepping into a whirlwind of alternate mental states of mind.

Anyways, I managed to get the CD pressed up. 22 track of chart-topping weirdness. And I printed up a 64-page magazine to go along with it because I was into over-kill back then. And it got written up in all the local newspapers and music magazines. The San Francisco Chronicle did a big article with the big headline “The Surprise Hit of the Season.” Which was a bit of an exaggeration. But I wasn’t complaining. And KFOG — the big psuedo-hippie classic rock station — did a feature on it and played some of the tracks. And the first pressing of a thousand copies sold out pretty quickly.

I had this Peavy amp in my apartment at the time, that I’d bought from some crackhead musician for 50 bucks worth of crack (that amp had great fuzz tone for power chords!!). So I had all these street musicians tramping through my place at all hours of the day and night, partying away and making lots of music in between all the drugs and alcohol. ROCK’N’ROLL YA PUKES!! My upstairs neighbor wanted to kill me. And I can’t say I blamed him. After he called the cops on me for like the third time, I realized the party was over. I had gotten too wild for civilized company. Plus, I was four months behind on my rent, because I had stupidly spent what little money I had on recording equipment, musical instruments, pressing up a thousand CDS and printing up a 64 page magazine. So I was fucked.

But I didn’t care. I wanted to cut loose. I wanted action. I wanted to be baying at the moon at midnight without getting busted by the cops.

So I packed up all my stuff into storage, sub-let my apartment, and hit the road. I had a frame backpack with a sleeping bag, and my guitar and a leather satchel with all my recording equipment. And I set out to record Volume Two of the “Telegraph Street Music” CD from right on the streets. It seemed like a concept. So I spent a year recording hundred of hours of music, madness and mirth. But by that time, I had become so overwhelmed by the street musician scene that I couldn’t really produce much of anything with all the cassette tapes I had recorded, except to put them all in a big box and stash it in my storage locker. Where they sit, thankfully, to this day. THE END.

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The Ballad of Isy Jones

The Ace Backwords Report
(journal entry) February 4, 2007, SUPER SUNDAY!!!

10196_630508033633410_1476375477_n.jpgI have this almost unbearable sadness in me now. I wonder if its finally taken ahold of me for good. This battle I’ve fought all my life.

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Isy Jones’s death last month — jumping in front of a train in final, permanent, agonizing torment — was like some final nail in my coffin.

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I can’t help thinking of that period — 1993 and 1994 — which I always look back on in my mind’s eye as an endless sunny, summer day. We were all young and strong and full of hope for some glorious Future that we were sure was just around the corner if we could just hot-wire the thing. Hot-wire Reality.
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Now, 13 painful years later, I sit back and watch all the people dying horrible, agonizing deaths, one after another. Its like we’re getting picked off, one after another. And I’m next. I look at the list of names on the TELEGRAPH  STREET MUSIC CD — Anthony, Monk, Comatoes, Charles, Zack, Duncan, Isy, etc — and watch them wiping out, one after another. Coming to bad ends.
You wonder if you’re under some kind of curse.
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I’m vaguely haunted by my last interaction with Isy (Am I fated to end all these games — all my “relationships” — on a losing note, an unresolved note?).
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It was around December 9th (as I count the days backwards, as I always do, realize its already been almost 2 months, as the memory of Isy and everything that he once was, rushes into the Oblivion of the past)…Isy, on his own accord, has approached me and eagerly offered to buy me a $20 bag of chrystal meth if I’ve got the dough. He’s got it all lined up.
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“This isn’t going to be a complicated deal?” I ask, as I always ask with Isy, from painful past experiences, having wasted 6 or 7 hours waiting around on a dark street-corner, only to get burned by Isy, on “simple, easy deals” Isy had set up before. So I tend to stress that point before I get into a weird “situation” with weird people, and Godknowswhat (factor in the generally deranging power of chrystal meth, and the fact that virtually every person involved in “the deal” is angling to burn you, plus the cop/paranoia/arrest factor, plus the generally complicated nature of ANY free-lance entrepenuerial enterprise of commerce involving more than 4 people (3 of whom are insane, including me) in complex patterns of social behavior — and you have all the ingredients for a “complicated” situation.
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“No, I’ll be right back! I got it all set up in the Park!” insists Isy, with that air of frantic urgency that Isy always got when involved with all things chrystal methamphetamine (arms jerking up in the air as he talked, etc.)
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“Okay,” I said, making that fateful, and sometimes fatal, commitment of pressing the $20 bill into Isy’s hand (Flashing on the memory of another time I had slipped Isy a bill in similar circumstances, Isy walked off and returned 6 hour later, empty-handed,alas, but at least he returned my bill THAT time — a minor miracle in itself — but what was odd was the bill itself — it was crumpled and wrinkled almost beyond belief, with this strange, glossy sheen to the surface, as if Isy had been frantically rubbing and carressing and folding and unfolding the bill non-stop, with enormous finger pressure for the entire 6 hours the bill was stuffed in his pocket.).
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About 15 LONG minutes later, Isy did in fact return.
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“Lets for for a walk,” he said
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“So how’d it go?” I asked as we walked down Haste Street, still not sure if he’d hand me back my bill (in God knows what condition) or the drugs (in God knows what amount and/or quality: “Oh no! Not generic white powder AGAIN!”) or whether some strange, new complication has arisen calling for a private strategy session and a Re-thinking of Our Options.
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“Did you get it?”
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“Yeah, i got it,” said Isy. “Lets go somewhere and let me snort a line for scoring for you.” (Isy’s original plan, his original proposal, was that he had $20 and if I kicked in my $20 we could BOTH split a really good deal. But, as I said, unexpected complications often developed when going from step A to step B in most methamphetamine transactions.) Isy handed me the little bag of meth as we walked side-by-side down the street, as I quickly eyed the size and feel of the bag, sizing up the amount and the potential quality before I quickly jammed it into my pocket. Like I said, suspicion and paranoia runs rampant at this crucial juncture of the transaction, as well as the thought (always in the back of my mind)that one false, or merely unlucky move, could bring the unwanted presence of the cops, which could change the course of my life for the next couple months, if not the next couple years. So I’m always eager for this crucial part of the transactions — for the money to change hands, and for the drugs to change hands — to go as quickly as possible. I’ve now got the bag in my pocket, which I’m compulsively fingering to re-assure myself that I haven’t lost it, or that the contents aren’t spilling out (zip-lock working A-OK?) and I’m so close to home and I’m already hungering in anticipation of that magic moment when I finally get safely back to my office and take that first big hit, with all the promise of satisfaction and well-being and euphoric energy and sensual pleasure (what the hell, sometimes that shit actually works — why do you think people are going to jail for it?).
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But now — darn, darn, darn!! — this unforseen complication has arisen: involving taking the little bag of highly illegal drugs out of the safety of my pocket and into public view, and then daintily measuring out a line (How much is that greedy bastard Isy gonna take?!) hopefully without spilling a drop of the precious little contents (Its rarely enough anyways) and then nervously tapping my feet during those perilous moments when Isy (he could give a fuck) is Doing Drugs in Public. (Though, in retrospect, I wonder if all this feverish outlaw excitement is part of the big appeal of drugs. I noticed I completely stopped smoking pot right around the time they de-criminalized it and you could just go buy it at all the cannabis clubs — somehow that killed the buzz.).
“Man, I hate this shit,” I muttered, letting Isy know I wanted this part of the transaction to be as short-and-sweet as possible.
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We’re both making slightly manic small-talk as we walk side-by-side down the street. I’m nervous and giddy with hopeful anticipation at the prospect of actually getting HIGH (my life has been so low lately, for so long), and, of course, we’re both trying hard to “act normal” — which flies in the face of our normal, abnormal behavior. We sing a few odd lines from songs by Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones (in retrospect, I guess it should have been “This could be the last time . . “). And I say: “It’s a whacky world, Isy.” An inside joke between me and Isy, told and re-told during the course of many previously-shared scenes of whackiness over the last 13 years on the scene. Ahh, the things we have seen, me and Isy. Two damaged, fucked-up, but eminently soulful, bums on the streets of Berkeley. Sheesh. (If you could look at some of the real-life movies that played out from behind our eye-balls you probably wouldn’t believe some of the scenes. For people like Isy live at that juncture where the surreal, the crazed, the bizarre, the demented,and the horrific, is the norm. (Too bad these scribbled journals are the closest I can come to capturing those eye-ball movies).
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Isy leads me around the corner and up the steps to the side porch of the First Presb Church. We both sat down on the floor, our backs resting against the church building. It was a fairly safe spot,we were blocked out of the sidewalk traffic, and we’d be able to spot anybody coming from any direction before they got to us. Isy — as crazy as he was — was a genius in that sense. In the middle of the most crowded city street, he could ALWAYS find some little covey-hole, some safe little haven, where you could get high. A skill no doubt honed with animal grace by thousands and thousands of previous drug-related manuevers in the urban jungle. (Reminiscing after his death, virtually every person on the Berkeley street scene had cherished memories of “getting high with Isy” or “going to jail with Isy.” And often, both. And its with a painful, poignant feeling that I realize I am chronicling the last of what was a long, long line — a lifetime — of “getting high with Isy” episodes. If there was a Tweeker Hall of Fame, Isy Jones would certainly be a first-ballot inductee.
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“Lets be quick about this,” I whispered, handing Isy the tiny, zip-locked baggie.
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“Gimme your lighter, Ace.” He took my lighter and rolled it over the bag of meth, crushing the little rocks into a snortable powder. (“So THATS how you do it!” I thought. Previously, I had taken the meth out of the bag and crushed them with an exacto-knife — sometimes causing parts of the rock to go ping-ing off the mirror and into the un-seen distance — always fun searching for those long-lost crumbs of meth, two days later, when you’re down to your last line. But leave it to Isy: the Expert. He was in fact the expert on all things Drugs. He had virtually dedicated his life to the pursuit, the study, and the consumption, of drugs.)
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Isy quickly poured out a line. “Gimme a dollar, Ace.” Isy expertly rolled up the bill and took a big, nostril-burning snort. AHH!
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Isy handed me back the little bag of meth. “Give me back my dollar, too,” I said, a little too quickly. And I always felt bad about that, regret it. Because it was a cheap thing to say. But at this point, I had already given Isy $20, and now HE was the one getting high, and I STILL didn’t know how much was in the bag or if I’d gotten burned — still hadn’t had a chance to take a good look at my little, covert prize. So, at the LEAST, I wanted my dollar back. But its weird how these mundane interactions take on more of a resonance — and this haunted feeling — because they’re your LAST interactions with the guy. Its like I’m magnifying them. Searching for clues at the scene of the crime.
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We quickly got up and scurried down the steps. (And now, every time I pass that spot by the First Presb Church, I flashback to that last time with Isy, sitting there, crushing the meth with my lighter, etc. and I say a little prayer for Isy, repeat my mantra for Isy, for his spirit, wherever its roaming across the Universe, in whatever dimension.)
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Isy was strangely subdued as we walked back to the Ave. I could feel the heaviness of his spirit. He wasn’t his usual, herky-jerky self. In retrospect, I think he already knew. He had already made up his mind. He knew this was The Last Time. Of course, I didn’t know. To me it was just one more mundane afternoon on Telegraph, in a seemingly endless expanse of them, dating back to 1993 — the Ace and Isy show. Isn’t it weird how we always think its going to last forever? I didn’t think any more of it as Isy walked off and disappeared down the street, one more time. Until later.”Where’d you and Isy go?” said Psycho Joe with a leering, knowing grin on his face.
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“Nowhere,” I said. All the nosy bums on the corner had been watching the interactions between me and Isy — the whole crazy dance — and they all knew. Which was embarrassing. Because crystal meth is a degenerate drug. And I was embarrassed that everyone knew about my degeneracy.
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“Its a good thing you left,” said Psycho Joe. “Because while you were gone the cops were just here busting those guys hanging out in the corner.” (Which just shows you how slim your margin-of-error can be on the streets).  But now that I think of it, the other thing I always thought about whenever I walked back-and-forth with Isy in the middle of these drug scenes, was: I always thought about the ghosts of all the great Drug Outlaws Past. Isy — the Keith Richards wannabe. And me — the John Lennon wannabe. And I’d think of all the exciting books and magazines and records we had read and listened to. William Burroughs. Jim Carroll. Lou Reed. The New York Dolls. Iggy Pop. Jim Morrison. William Blake. GG Allin, man! On and on. All the great drug heroes of our youth. And all the exciting descriptions of their drug use. Mind-tripping to all these strange and taboo realms of reality. And the whole outlaw mystique that we bought into, hook-line-and-sinker. And the whole desperate need to just simply feel GOOD. To feel happy, to feel sensual pleasure, to feel contented, to feel love, to love and be loved. In a world that mostly seemed to offer pain, emptiness, and unfulfillment. Except for this fleeting thing we could sometimes grasp in a little, tiny, zip-locked baggie.
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But mostly it was the feeling that we’d blown it, that we’d been conned, that we’d walked down this False Path and we had walked too far beyond the point where we could make that U-turn back to safety (wherever THAT was, in what direction THAT was, God knows where; safety; sheesh.). And that what we were doing was just a tired re-tread of that whole ’60s trip. Which by now had been done to death — like a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy. Scoring drugs. Doing drugs. The whole so-called excitement of the drug subculture. But here we were, one more time on that doomed loop — me and Isy.I went back to my office, snorted up the speed, and masturbated for 48 hours. It was a reasonably good deal. (And, in retrospect, I think Isy had set up the deal because he wanted to pay me back for the times he had burned me in the past, like he wanted to clear the karmic slate before he left this plane.)
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I finally woke up on Thursday with a splitting headache. I emerged from my hole and went back up to the Ave. I had $5 in my pocket that I wanted to give to Isy as a tip.
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Rick was holding a little potted plant, and Fat Bill said:
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“. . . and we can plant it in People’s Park in Isy’s favorite spot where he always liked to hang out.”
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“What?” I said.
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“Didn’t you hear? Isy stepped in front of a train yesterday morning. . . “
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And the worst thing is: you never get to say good-bye. Its just over. Phppt. Like an anti-climactic ending to a movie. Or more like God suddenly, and inexplicably, just snips the movie right in the middle. And the screen goes blank. The End.
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But one things for sure: I sure as fuck couldn’t give Isy the $5 now. And I felt especially guilty about the “Gimme back my dollar” crack. And my mind immediately started racing through the quickly-fading memories of my last interaction with Isy, searching for SOMETHING. Wondering if it was somehow my FAULT. Survivor’s guilt. Or if there was something I could’ve done differently. Or if I had at least had had the chance to give him his goddam $5 . . .
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But it always seems to end like that for me. These loose ends, with these loose interactions, with all these loose people, that I can never quite tie together.
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Like when my friend Linda the painter had died earlier in the year last summer — that wretched year of 2006. My last interaction with her, after 24 years of friendship, was when she left a message on the answering machine of my phone:
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“Ace, why didn’t you stop and talk to me when we passed on the street the other day? Are you mad at me? Please give me a call some time . . .” I was just busy and in a hurry. A million things in this haphazard life going on in a thousand different directions in space and time. Pulled a thousand different ways. When I finally got around to calling Linda back 2 months later, her phone was disconnected. She was dead.
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I cried for Linda as I walked down the street. This aching, piercing sadness in my heart.
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And I cried for Isy later that night as I walked down the street. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.
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“I was up for 14 days / Would have done a couple more / Got hauled off to Santa Rita / Third bunk from the floor . . . “
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