Wakes

J.Brent©1993

Joe McCall had a drum on his back and a guitar in his hand. He used to play with Mottey (who had a guitar and a drum on his back, too). Between Joe's little drum and Mottey's big one they could really rock and roll. I don't know how these two got hooked up together, but they could belt the hell out of those heavy-duty chunka chunka rock numbers. We partied a few times together, in fact we even had Phil Free's 50th birthday over at Joe's old place in Fribourg.

Joe was pretty soft spoken and he always had a good word for everybody. His girlfriend was Suzie, a Swiss girl he'd been with for years.

One day the news comes around that they found Joe in the back of his VW van with his jugular slit. He'd been there for a few days, and there was no sign of a struggle.

A lot of people were speculating foul play, but Big Junk (who knew him better than me) said that Joe'd been acting real wierd lately, and had gotten on this trip about how he was "Mr K-nobody from K-nowhere". Besides Suzie who was three months pregnant, had thrown him out since he was always talking this depressive paranoic bullshit.

Big Junk said to me "Man, you're lucky that YOU don't have a phone. Otherwise he would've been calling you up three times a day with his K-nivelling snivelling." As far as he was concerned there was no question about Joe comitting suicide.

OK, Suzie had thrown him out, besides the profession he was in was not exactly a booming industry. Being a street musician you have no pension, no sick pay, no workman's compensation for the days when you get rained out and consequently can't play out of doors, no health or dental plan, and if you get run out of town by the cops with a heavy fine on top then you're double fucked.

In short, a busker's life is not all it's cracked up to be. And considering Joe had no real marketable skills besides a nice voice and a knowledge of four or more chords, he probably figured he could never make enough money to support a family (ie. child-support to a woman who doesn't want to see him anymore) and maybe it just occured to him that there was no other way out. Or that's how one version of the story goes.

I would almost prefer to believe somebody "did him in" due to some devious intrigue, than to see him take his own life for such pathetic and weak reasons.


Los (another busker) came up with the idea that all the members of the Swiss Buskers Association (a completely bogus concept, but one that pretty much captured the feeling among the street musicians currently making a nuisance of themselves all over Switzerland) should do a benefit at the Red Factory in Zurich for Suzie and the baby. It was the least we could do, and did Suzie ever need the money. Don't you believe it when they say that everybody in Schviitzerlandeli is rich.

The date for Joe's wake was set near Christmas, and there were posters all over Zurich talking about "The Street Musicians Konzert in memoriam of Joe".

It was icy that night, the cold feeling of a last farewell to a friend you'll never see again. All kinds of acts got up on stage, and Los had someone vidoetape it for posterity. Paul the violinist was there, Mottey (of course), the great street philosopher Paul McNeil sang a song about "Coal Miner's Tatoos", Rudi Rudini juggled, and there was the latest incarnation of "Bootleg Band": Big Junk with Tony Wilson on tenor sax, Dottle on drums, Galfano's brother on bass, and Uve the Duvet on guitar. Hud was our sound man.

Phil Free was the master of ceremonies, the Grand Old Man himself, God bless him. There were also a bunch of people there that I didn't know. Like some folky girl-boy dulcimer-mandolin kind of sweet sing thing. Also this fat-assed broad that thought she could dance, who used her spot in the limelight to plug herself and give out the telephone number and address of her studio over the microphone.

The main attraction at the end of the evening was "Vibrations", (a real live professional band) with Meaghan on vocals, Jerrykins on guitar, me on keyboards and Beetlejuice on bass.

We tore it up, they loved Meaghan's singing. Later, we had a bunch of publicity photos taken by this photographer from NYC, and boy did some of those photos ever get me into trouble!

After Meaghan finished her show and went home, the stage became a free-for-all jam session. Jerrykins was standing at the bar knocking back tequila hookers one after the next, while I was alternating mineral water and beer and hanging backstage casually waiting around to see if any toot would arrive (if any ever did, I sure never saw any of it). Coming back out the stage door, I hear Jerry screaming "Joe's here! He's here, man! Joe's not dead! I can feel him all around us!" He was way past incoherent, and the Red Factory people were trying to throw him out because he was so incredibly drunk.

So Jerry, his girlfriend Babs, me and Beetlejuice all hop in somebody's car to go over to Jerry's place to sleep.

On the ride home Jerry keeps ranting and raving about all the wrongs the world has done to him over the course of his life. And suddenly he zeroes in on Beetlejuice!

By the time we all get out of the car, Jerry's threatening to punch Beetlejuice in the nose, or worse. I finally have to stand right between them (risking my own nose) to break it up.

Then Jer goes all mushy and apologetic slobbering all over about how sorry he is, and professing his everlasting deep brotherly love for poor old Beetlejuice who can't believe that all this bullshit is happening.


Babs gave Jerry the boot the very next day just after me and Beetlejuice left the apartment in the morning. Yup, that was the night Jerry lost Barbara alright. It's a pity what alcohol can do to you, if you don't know when to stop.

As for Joe - if it was suicide, I reckon it was a coward's way out.

As for the gig, it was well reviewed in the newspapers. Considering it was "just" street music.

As for Babs, she became a christian.

As for Meaghan, she got in a little trouble for a couple of those photos, too.

As for Jerry, he got himself a girlfriend that isn't a christian.

And as for Big Junk, he wasn't long to follow Joe.

Big Junk used to tell the story of how once in London he'd shot up some really pure smack, OD'd and then passed out sitting on his legs. Three days later when he woke up, the blood circulation from the knees down had been cut off for so long that he had no feeling for at least a week afterwards. He said he had to crawl out onto the street to get to the hospital.

Sounds pretty dramatic, eh? And you know who he blames the whole thing on? His junkie 'friends'. "They just fucked off and left me for dead, man! Those sonsabitches! The least they could've done was to lay me out flat so my legs wouldn't have fallen asleep" Big Junk would say. Of course, it never occurred to him that it might have just been a little bit his own fault for taking heroin in the first place and then hanging around with the type of scumbags that are into that shit anyway.

In the early days of Big Junk's "Bootleg Band", I used to regularly play solo piano at this Jazz club called "The Fox", down in Lausanne. This was a real steady-paying gig, and I convinced the manager and his wife to have our Rock band come down and do two nights back to back. We were going to use the money from that weekend's concerts to finance the recording of the band's first demo (the recording studio was conveniently located in Lausanne, too).

Everything went pretty good at the gig. The place wasn't packed but the crack was quite respectable for the Friday, and we figured word of mouth would bring a bigger turnout the next night.

While we all sat at the bar chatting, Big Junk said that he was going up to his hotel room and would be back in five minutes.

More than an hour later, one of the guys who was sharing a hotel room with Big Junk came down to report that the door was locked and that he reckoned Big Junk was out for the count.

Since the Big Junkster had turned the dead bolt from the inside, there was no way to use a passkey. The manager was none too happy about all this fuss, I can tell you that. Luckily there was nobody sleeping in the room next door, so me and Mirko, the wild-eyed drummer, climbed along the narrow second story ledge to Big Junk's balcony.

Through the French windows we could see Big Junk laying on his back on the table. He was snoring, so we knew he was alive. But the window was shut real good and we couldn't rattle it open.

I kicked out one pane to open the latch (making a hell of a racket in the meantime), and Mirko jumped into the room. People were banging like crazy on the other side of the door (at three o'clock in the morning no less) and Mirko, like a dipshit, opened the door while I was still trying to pull the needle out of Big Junk's zombie hand and clean up the blood that had splattered on the wall just as he had fallen backwards after taking his overdose of junk.

Suddenly the room was full of lots of near-hysterical people. One of whom was a very bewildered looking manager, who couldn't figure out what could have happened to the big strapping lad who looked so healthy such a short time ago.

I took control and screamed "Get a fucking ambulance!" Things started to calm down. I was cursing Mirko for having opened the door before I could clean up the scene. We suggested to the manager that Big Junk suffered from epilepsy or something.

As they pulled Big Junk out on the stretcher, he was ice blue. And he would convulse and then stop breathing from time to time.

That was the Friday night. I figured that Big Junk would never be able to get out of the hospital in time to do the Saturday night gig, and we'd blow the contract and end up in debt up to our eyeballs because of the forfeiture clause. It was MY signature after all.

That son of a bitch! Here I'd had a steady jazz piano gig at The Fox! I'd been playing two weeks out of every month (5 days each week!) for about four months. Up till that point the boss and his wife loved me and I was making enough money that I didn't have to play the street. All that was gone in the blink of an eye because I was in a band with a lead singer who was a junkie and had just OD'd upstairs.

That Saturday was the last time I ever played at The Fox. Why couldn't Big Junk have simply waited until we'd finished both nights AND collected our money, before pulling that stunt?

In fact that Saturday night ol' Big Junk DID get up and fulfil his contract. But the events of the previous night put a pall over the whole place. Besides Big Junk could hardly stand up or keep his eyes open. Good thing you don't need legs or eyes to sing.

When we'd finished our evening's worth of half-hearted apathetically played repertoire, the manager gave us the money as agreed in the contract - And told us not to call again.

I told the manager that I would pay for the broken window, and I did. But it didn't end there. Big Junk had no health insurance, and he gave them MY name and address once he'd regained consciouness. Thanks to him I now had bill collectors sending me nasty notes about how they'd try to make ME pay for that asshole's mistake. Unbelievable.

Big Junk acted real nonchalant about the whole thing. Like overdosing was an everyday occurence and nothing to worry about. "Like what's everybody making such a big deal about? I've OD'd other times too, but I'm still here! So what if I made a little miscalculation, it could happen to anyone". And on and on. Yeah, man, so what if you nearly died. So what if you got me fired from my steady piano gig. Yeah, so what if they had to do a complete blood transfusion to save your life. Yeah, so what.

I really wanted to quit the band, but we had gigs lined up for the next two months. I resolved to get the hell out as soon as we wrapped up the remaining gigs. And here we had JUST recorded a demo! The whole idea being that we could get lots more gigs if we sent our new cassette around. Damn!

I tried to get away from Big Junk and his pals, to do my own thing, but we both lived in Biel and the chances of running into him in the bars in town was about 100% if he wasn't on the road.

Big Junk's place was the scene of a never-ending party whenever he was at home. His girlfriend at that time, Danielle, didn't seem to mind. She was pretty much into the same thing as everyone else who hung around his apartment. All hours of the day and night wild street musicians jamming out, their brains on overdrive into the outer limits of alcohol/drug/music induced intoxication. Which was actually pretty cool most of the time.

Even later when Big Junk got thrown into jail for dealing, the party continued unabated. Incredible.

Once Big Junk got out of the nick, he came around looking me up. I told him that I didn't want anything to do with him, but he swore that he was "clean" and that junk was a thing of the past in his life.

Besides, I had a van and he'd lost his driver's license due to a one-car accident he'd had about a week before they arrested him. He'd fallen asleep at the wheel of his VW bug. He ran smash into a telephone pole. The car was totalled, and he was lucky to be alive. He was snoring when they found him. Naturally he claimed that heroin had nothing to do with the accident.

He spent a long time trying to sweet talk me into teaming up with him again, and finally he succeeded. We drove up to Germany for a busking tour, but as soon as we got to his brother's place in Stuttgart he started going through withdrawal symptoms.

He hadn't been out of jail for even a month, and here he was jonesing. Sweating and groaning on the floor for three days because he couldn't score any skag in Bavaria. I said "Fuck this" and once he was well enough to travel, it was back to Switzerland again.

Here I go spending all of my money on gas to drive hours and hours to get up to Krautland, and when we finally arrive I get stuck in a gloomy apartment watching this guy go through what looks like a combination of a bad flu, menstrual cramps and the plague all rolled up into one.

Of course, this experience once again prompts him to declare that he'll never touch smack again. And before you know it, he's talked me into going out to play in the street in a town not far from Biel. "We're not actually teaming up, mind you, we're just out for a bit of a boogie". "A bit of a boogie" was one of his favorite expressions.

OK, I needed the money, and Big Junk DID pull in the coins. We made a rendez-vous for me to come and pick him up at 8:00 in the morning so we could get set up for the 9:00 am pitch. I showed up very shortly after eight like we'd planned. He was still in bed.

He was always doing this, like setting up band practice and then showing up two hours late. He must've gotten a big psychological kick out of hanging people up. But then he'd always apologize and in a grand gesture of generosity, he'd make you believe that he'd never do it again. What a selfish manipulative bastard. What a conceited ass. What a con man. He would've made a great used car salesman!

We finally left his place at about 11:00 am, which is too late to get any morning pitches in, but he assured me that we'd give 'em hell in the afternoon.

So, we show up in town, and hit the local freak bar for lunch. I'm steaming thinking "What the hell did I get up at 7:00 in the morning for? Just so I could eat a greasy schnitzel in this shithole?"

Soon one o'clock came around and then two o'clock, and then I suggest that we make a move to get out there and do a pitch to make some money. Just then, some guy walks in and goes straight up to Big Junk, nods at me and the gives Big Junk that "look". The ol' Junkeroo asks me for the keys to my van and tells me (like he'd told me so many times before) "I'll be back in five minutes".

A half hour goes by, 45 minutes, an hour. With Big Junk "five minutes" always meant at least an hour, but here it was getting towards late afternoon, and I'm sitting on my ass waiting to make some money while this big blond bozo jerks me around.

I leave the bar, go down to where my van is parked and slide open the side door. There's the guy we'd met in the bar who says, "Thank god that you finally came by! Your friend's passed out and I couldn't figure out how to open the door from the inside!" I have to believe him, this guy's so completely zonked that he probably couldn't find his dick if he needed to piss.

Once the door's open, he high-tails it out of there, while I try to rouse the Big Junkster. No way is your Mister Green Gills coming out of his coma. Godammit!! You motherfucking bastard! OD'd on me AGAIN!

I start driving back to Biel, and for all I know, I've got a frigging stiff in the back of my vehicle. What a total waste of a day! About 45 minutes later when we reach the city limits, the sleeping giant rears his angry head. "Where the fuck are we? I thought we were going to do a pitch! What time is it? Hey, where did that guy go?"

It was already way too late to do any kind of street pitch. And I should be seen in public anyway standing next to this junkie on the nod? Are you kidding? I was taking him home!

Then Big Junk starts screaming about how his dealer pal had dipped into Junk's stash and ripped him off while he was in his state of zombie face rigor mortis. "That unscrupulous bastard!" Big Junk was roaring. Funny, but somehow heroin dealers have never struck me as the type of people that give "scruples" a high priority.

I never played music with Big Junk again. Pretty soon he got together another "Bootleg Band" with a ragtag bunch of guys from England. They had made a demo that Big Junk played for me. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him frankly that it sucked and that he'd never go anywhere with a recording that sounded as shitty as that. He didn't take it too kindly.

The last time I saw him, he was bragging to everybody in the bar about how his wife had just given him a double blow job. She'd sucked him off twice in a row without even stopping at all. Hey, congratulations, man!

The very next morning, I got a call saying that Big Junk had OD'd. I said "Yeah, so, what else is new?" But this time it was for good.

He'd gone over to Hans-Jurg's place. Hans-Jurg was a junkie himself, but he was also a successful artist. HE could afford his habit. Rumors say that while Big Junk was lying dead in Hans-Jurg's living room, "the artist" was drawing pictures of the corpse. "Still life".

This left Junk's wife with a two year old boy and a three month old baby. A lot of people reckoned that it was bound to happen sooner or later. Big Junk was never going to stop taking smack. After all, it was his whole life.

The funeral and afterwards were surprisingly difficult times for me. I never figured that Big Junk's death would have had such a devastating effect on me. To make matters worse, he died on my wife's birthday. Which she somehow managed to hold me responsible for.

Here was this big bullying rock singer, who I'd cursed for wasting so much of my time, suddenly gone. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to feel? I cried. Yes, I cried, and more than once. I said that I hoped someobody somewhere would learn something from this, but I'm not very optimistic about that.

A few weeks later, we held a "benefit" for Junk's widow upstairs in the St. Gervais (the same room I held my wedding reception in). Most of the buskers came and played, it seemed like the entire town turned out for the event and lots of people donated money.

It wasn't as elaborate as Joe's wake, but we put every fiber of our being into a final tribute to the Big man we'd all shared so many special times with. We played the songs that he'd written, probably the last time they'll ever be played. We drank, we smoked and we sang to Big John's memory.

At the end of the concert, the proceeds were to be given to John's wife. Somehow the responsibility fell on my shoulders. It felt like blood money when I handed it to her. I didn't know what to say. She didn't want to take it, but I sure couldn't keep it for myself (in spite of the fact that he'd died owing me hundreds of francs).

As for Big Junk's widow, she's raising two strapping young lads all by herself, but without the problems caused by a man who's constantly in a comatose stupor.

As for Hans-Jurg, he was declared "Biel's Citizen of the Year" not three months later. Could it have been because he had allowed the town's most notorious junkie to die on his living room couch? You can bet that the city fathers were glad to be rid of Big Junk once and for all. You think I'm joking?

As for me, it was the end of an era. Big John Signer was the unofficial King of the Buskers, and when he died, no one could take his place.

7

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