Born Into This
“All biography is fiction.”
February 2015. I was in New York leaving a restaurant with my brother when, beginning to cross the street, I slipped on the sidewalk and fell backward. I hadn’t been paying attention to the snow on the ground, nor the black ice beneath it. There was no time to brace myself, and the back of my head broke the fall, hitting the metal edging of the curb.
So much for what had otherwise been a pleasant yet unmemorable evening. I spent the rest of the night at the hospital getting CAT scans and X-rays. At three o’clock in the morning, the doctor showed me the images and explained that I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage. My brain was bleeding.
Well, you never know when you might step off a curb into the great abyss.
I was fortunate. The experience didn’t kill me (obviously), but as I write this almost a year later, I am still recovering from the effects.
Lying on a gurney knowing that if I chose to sleep, I might not wake up brought my life and the world into a kind of focus and perspective that I had not experienced in many years. Among my meditations was a determination not to reach the end of my life in a hospital room if I could help it. Once the second brain scan confirmed that my brain was no longer leaking, I signed myself out and, as planned prior to the accident, was on a plane to Quito the next morning. A week later, as I was snorkeling with sea lions and other marine life, I thought, “If it all ended right now, it would be okay.”
Partly because the incident jolted me into recognizing once again how fragile life is and partly persuaded by the obvious metaphor—black ice, the illusion of security—I started thinking about a plan I’ve had for years to write about my experiences. I had attempted it in the past, but the task requires a great deal of focus and a kind of narrative skill that is not exactly in my mental toolbox. But this time I decided to make a serious effort, and so, with the help of Lila MacLellan to co-write and ghostwrite with me, I set out to chronicle my life. So far.
Not easy to do. When confronting the past, the fog of memory combined with the impulse to embellish achievements and ignore the less-than-finer moments are obstacles that require honesty and courage. This is my attempt to get at that truth or, at least, the authenticity of what it is I choose to share about my life.
After many false starts, I began to set down my story in earnest in June of 2015. The initial project was completed in April 2016, and, of course, life went on during the process. This is a snapshot of what happened up until that point. I’m already looking back to the ending as pretty ancient history.
Anyone interested in reading this should know that it’s a back-story to how I came to approach songwriting and performing as my primary job. While the book serves to explain my history, the songs are how I have processed my experiences into a view of relationships and the world.
My hope for the reader is that you find something of yourself in this narrative.
Peace to all.
“Dreaming back thru life, your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse…”
—Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish
Part One: Born Into This
When I was growing up, I saw them as ancient people. They were in their thirties or forties, and it seemed like they knew what they were doing, were in control. Nothing was further from the truth.
My parents were both first-generation Americans, the children of European Jewish immigrants—my mother’s family was Polish, my father’s Russian and German. They met at a kind of summer retreat in the Catskill Mountains, a Borscht Belt place that attracted single working-class Jews. Their courtship is a familiar tale: The guy is relentless and the woman isn’t interested. She was five foot one and slim, but curvy. Her large eyes and big girlish curls make her doll-like in photographs. He was short and muscular—in fact, he had been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth. What he lacked in size he made up for in bravado until the world wore him out.
He kept coming at her until she agreed to see him, and soon enough they were married. My father's family worried about her from the beginning. They recognized that she was somehow disturbed. What drew him to her, besides her looks, is a mystery. They were so mismatched in so many ways, constantly at each other, both miserable. But like most people, and for reasons incomprehensible to me, they felt compelled to hurl their genes into the future in the form of two sons.
I’m at an age now where they were almost young enough when they died to be my children. From this perch, it’s easy to see just how lost they were—one had a broken navigation system, and the other could do little but try to cope.
Maybe some people are born with a natural sense of how to overcome whatever bad hand they have been dealt. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that these two people were incapable of bringing out the best in each other and the result was really the opposite: They tore each other down and, in the process, created a toxic home environment—at least for me. Some people channel their inability to have a happy home life into being successful in other parts of their lives. Here, too, they failed, but in the wake of their failure I believe they provided me the tools to do just that.
My mother was raised in rural Pennsylvania, the middle child of three sisters. Her mother was an illiterate immigrant, who at age fifteen ran off with the head of the household where she had worked as a servant. The relationship didn't last, and she soon found herself single, moving from place to place with two children. Eventually she had a third child, the younger sibling my mother never tired of referring to as “the half-sister.” It was an obvious pejorative in her mind, as if her family name had some cache or a coat of arms that would be clouded by a “half-sister.”
My mother was prone to rant about my grandmother’s promiscuity. They moved frequently, and wherever they lived, my grandmother would come back to the house with someone, and my mother, a young child, would be forced to sleep in the same bed with her mother and her lovers. I don’t know if any of these men molested her, but I know that some older boy, a stranger, had tried to rape her when she was a young girl. In the story she recounted, she claimed that she fought him off. Maybe it was part of the trauma that facilitated her slip into mental illness.
Long after her death, I learned that she had been suicidal at a young age. I guess she was what people today would call bipolar,or maybe she was a paranoid schizophrenic. (The first time I read Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish” I thought it could have been written about my mother.) She was also bright and funny, well educated—self-educated. Short a high school diploma, she was only hirable for jobs that were unchallenging and uninteresting, with the notable exception of one: an administrative position with Whitney Young of the National Urban League. At home we were subjected to an endless narrative that had her bitching about her job, whichever job she had. My brother and I were brought up with the operative idea that work was drudgery, something to be endured.
In my mother’s perfect world, there would have been no need for her to work at all. She would have preferred to spend her time practicing some form of art, specifically, painting or music. She made attempts at impressionism though she had no training. Her other love was the piano. It was absurd that we had this upright piano in our tiny one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, but we did. My brother, Bruce, took lessons, and my mother played by ear. She knew classical pieces, and whether she could play well, again, I can’t recall. I do remember that the piano was the exclusive property of my mother and my brother—that was made clear. Repeatedly. I was not to touch it.
I was also banned from playing the harmonica my father kept in the piano bench. He used it once a month when he sang in a men’s group. But living as a latchkey kid did have some perks. Whenever the house was empty, I’d sneak over and try to get some notes out on the piano, find a melody. Or else I’d slip the harmonica out from its hiding place and teach myself a tune.
I was drawn to music as far back as I can remember, but my parents did not acknowledge or encourage my interest in it. I was a presence to be tolerated in what I call my “invisible childhood,” while all of the focus was on my mother’s illness, my father’s failures, and the potential for greatness that they placed in my brother, the hope of the family.
Bruce had arrived first, at the start of World War II, and then it was my turn, one of many post-war babies, five years later. I was a burden to my mother from the beginning because she hadn’t planned the pregnancy. I was just another trap, another symbol of her social immobility. She’d often say things like, “I’ll never have a mink coat,” and “We’re all going to end up in the poorhouse,” but she was more insecure than materialistic. My father couldn't meet her expectations; he couldn’t seem to hold even a menial job for long. Unlike most post-war families where the mother worked by choice, ours worked out of necessity.
In the apartment, my parents had to sleep on a Castro convertible in the living room while my brother and I shared the bedroom. Despite the family dysfunction, my parents reflected the values of post-war America without realizing they were victims of the collective madness that those values represented. They believed in sacrificing for the future of their kids, but they didn’t really know how to go about it. Giving the one bedroom to Bruce and me was probably a gesture on their part to demonstrate that sacrifice. They believed education was essential and that hard work was necessary, and they wholeheartedly bought into the post-war promise of middle-class prosperity. They trusted institutions: the courts, the public schools, the unions, and the Liberal political operatives. My mother spoke often of how she cried when Franklin Roosevelt died. Kennedy represented the dawn of an age that would bring a utopia to the good old USA. His election victory meant Bruce and I were somehow going to be able to realize our parents’ broken dreams. As children of the Great Depression, they never crawled out from the shadow of the scars of those hard times.
Given the lack of options for women with unwanted pregnancies—or in unhappy marriages, for that matter—I could see how she must have harbored a lot of resentment, about which, frequently and without any warning, she would go off on a long diatribe in minute detail.
I was often cited as the cause for much of her unhappiness and their collective failure. My brother and I have had many animated conversations about whether our childhoods were terrible or, on the whole, pleasant. Reflecting on it, I think we are both correct. My brother’s childhood was relatively happy—he was the object of my mother’s love and could do no wrong. He was constantly being told how smart, handsome, and talented he was. My experience was the polar opposite. I was told early on how I was not wanted, not capable, inferior, and facing dim prospects.
It wasn’t long before I began to live down to my reputation. I skipped school frequently. Feigned illness when I could get away with it. Home alone much of the time, I learned where my parents kept their cigarettes and began smoking at the age of eight. They didn’t keep booze in the house until I was around twelve or so. I learned to raid the scotch and water it down. I let them pin the blame on the black housekeeper whom they had come in twice a month. It amused me that they thought all black domestics were drunks when in fact it was their twelve-year-old seventh grader who was the lush.
I believe that the major difference in my and Bruce’s perception of growing up was the five years between us. Because my father was in the army, Bruce had our mother to himself in the first four years of his life. When my father returned, he was perceived by my brother as an alien and a competitor. The two of them never bonded and, in fact, were openly hostile. My arrival was not much more than a distraction from this triangle.
Through the years, Bruce didn’t witness as many of my father’s failures as I did, nor did he see as much of my mother’s mental decline. He had his own wounds from the madness that was our house, but they were different. He escaped before it all blew up, while I was caught in the center of it.
I think that humans are incredibly malleable creatures. If someone is raised in a climate where it’s always raining, they don’t necessarily miss sunshine. So, it took me years to recognize that my crazy world growing up was actually extremely difficult to cope with—much more difficult than even the most challenging moments that came later.
I recall one Saturday afternoon when I was about six years old. I was playing with my friends outside when I tumbled and landed on my face. Standing up, I discovered blood oozing from my mouth, so I scrambled upstairs to look for my mom. She was in the bedroom, in the dark. “Leave me alone,” she said, without turning on the light. I tried to demonstrate that I was hurting, and it was serious, but she rejected me entirely, telling me to go deal with it myself.
But she was also capable of being warm, loving, and present. At times she seemed to adore me. She was probably inappropriately affectionate, smothering me in kisses and telling me she loved me. These great moments were confusing, but always left me wanting more. Her mood could turn on a dime for no apparent reason.
I’ve read that prisoners of war in Korea and Vietnam would beg the guards to beat them at the same time every day. Never knowing when to expect the pain, or if it would come at all, was more torturous than the actual punishment. I don’t know if those prisoner tales are true, but in my home environment, we all knew it could become awful at any time. The uncertainty was at least as harmful to me as the behavior of any one of the three of them.
My parents possessed great native intelligence, and both were equipped with a caustic and vivid sense of humor—Mom especially. She would combine that wit with sarcasm, frustration (most often directed at our father), and stinging cruelty.
An example: My earliest memory is pre-birth, a fantasy sprung from the many times my mother complained that she had never wanted a second child and had tried several times to abort me with a wire hanger. She would be angry with me for some real or imagined thing that I had done. “I never wanted you. You insisted on being born. I had a miscarriage before you came, but you were determined to be born. I even tried to scrape you out of me with a hanger, but you were very persistent,” she’d tell me. So my memory is of a metal point scraping my skull. This painful sensation is especially vivid any time I look at an ultrasound of a fetus, something my pregnant friends have always insisted I do.
Only by looking back can I see that she had also tried to be a real mother. She was sincerely anxious for my future by the time I’d reached my mid-teens and had begun hanging around the Village, smoking pot, and playing guitar rather than going to school. The sixties were on the horizon and offered a glimpse of a future I had not imagined. Like a lot of parents, she was threatened by the changes occurring around us. I had already embraced the idea of the Beat culture, and expressed interest in joining the voter registration drives in the South. I was demonstrating a curiosity about an alternative way of being. Neither she nor my father understood that. I guess that having to deal with my brother’s homosexuality (he was very brave about coming out of the closet at that time) threw them into more of a panic about me as well.
One of the things that really prepared me for the business world, and especially for future meetings, was how unpredictable my mother’s behavior was. It meant we were all invested in containing her emotions. It was a tacit agreement, a conspiracy to keep her placated. We had to make her happy, or at least calm her tumultuous and abusive behavior, now. Not in six weeks or an hour. Left to fester, her depression, frustration, or paranoia was capable of casting a dark spell over our environment that could last hours, or days, and then be over as abruptly as it began.
Life at home centered around these moods. The focus could be her dissatisfaction with her job or her fear of “ending life in the poorhouse” or my failure as a student, or, later, my brother’s homosexuality. And there was the constant berating and belittling of my father for not providing more and having no hopeful prospects. (My brother gleefully pitched in and joined the fray as her ally.)
My sympathy for my father drove me closer to him. During the two or three times when my parents separated, I made it clear that I was happy about it and wanted to live with him. When we were all under one roof, I watched how my father suffered his environment in silence. He was torn between his own pain and his desire to care for my mother. I was drawn to try to defend and protect him, but didn’t have a clue as to how to go about it. There was a lot of guilt flying around the small apartment we struggled in. Witnessing this, I vowed never to let anyone hold me hostage to their mood swings. Of course, that was easier to pledge than to actually accomplish as I found out later in life.
I witnessed my mother taken out to an ambulance in the middle of the night a few times, but her condition was never explained to me. I found out the day of her suicide, years later, that these were failed attempts at ending her life, followed by mandatory hospital stays and shock treatments. I had no idea that she was suicidal, not until the morning during the summer of 1964 when she was finally successful.
I was at home that day, my brother had already moved out, and my father was at work. By this time we had a two-bedroom apartment, but only the living room had air conditioning, so I was sleeping there when my father called.
“Is your mother home?”
“No,” I said. I had heard her clomping around earlier, getting ready for work.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m the only one here.”
I fell back into my dreams, but the phone rang again.
“Just check for me. Make sure she's not there.”
I wanted to tell my father that we didn’t exactly live in the Hearst castle. “No, she’s not here, what’s the problem?”
“Go look. She’s not at work.”
After I hung up, I walked around the apartment looking for her. I went into their bedroom and, for some reason, opened the closet door. There she was in her work clothes curled up on a blanket. There was a note pinned to some dry cleaning. It read: “Too late for me, save Michael now.”
I immediately called the police, though I knew she was already dead. Then I called my father, who came home right away. It was just before my sixteenth birthday, so in my mind I was thinking, “I’m a man. I can deal with this.”
My father told me about her history that day. She had been hoarding pills. She took them all while I was asleep in the next room. “I’m glad it’s finally over,” he said between sobs. Frankly, I felt relieved as well. No more living under her exquisite form of tyranny.
It would take many years before I realized that discovering her dead put me into a state of shock that would be compounded almost a year later when my father died. I could not feel grief, compassion, or even sadness for either of them. The sense of relief I felt, the feeling of liberation, was my defense against the more layered emotions that took many years to work their way to the surface.
After my mother’s suicide, I had this fantasy that my father and I would be free to bond with each other without interference. It would be like one of those idiotic TV shows, a single father and his son sharing experiences.
I had no idea that my father had other plans. He already had another woman in his life that lived in our apartment building. He married her almost right away and then proceeded to drop dead of massive coronary failure, collapsing in front of me almost a year to the day of my mother’s suicide.
Seymour “Sol” Weiskopf (and Uncle Al)
If you’d met my father as an adult, you’d never have believed that he’d been that kid in the neighborhood who was always entangled in a fight or that he’d been kicked out of school and sent to the now-defunct Franklin K. Lane “vocational” high school—in reality a holding pen for incorrigibles.
He was from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood then and now, so he had honed the skills needed to defend himself and to protect his two sisters and younger brother. As an adult though, he was a different person—a sensitive guy, well-read, and self-educated, like my mother. His idea of a good time was to go off to the bathroom and read a novel or some history book for a couple of hours, escape from the madness of our home life and hope that no one bothered him.
My father volunteered to fight Hitler before being drafted, and once overseas, he quickly learned four languages: Italian, French, German, and Spanish. He spoke with such fluency that after Germany surrendered, his superiors convinced him to stay on and manage some railroads in Italy and France.
When he finally got back, we’d sometimes be impressed by his use of foreign phrases. He could converse in Italian with the owner of a restaurant we went to for special occasions. I saw him speak French, too. When you try to speak French and can’t, French people will give you a hard time about it, but my father’s accent was so natural that he seemed to gain their approval.
I’ve always thought that he should have made the army his career. He could've moved up quickly, made use of his talents. Instead he made poor choices. He never took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get a formal education or buy a house. As our neighborhood deteriorated and many of my middle-class friends moved to the suburbs, we were one of the last families that stayed. Eventually, we moved to a larger apartment, but it was in a much worse area than where I had my early childhood. Sometimes, we would drive to a development in Massapequa or Elmont and look at model homes. The silence in the car on the way back to Brooklyn was unbearable for me—my mother’s hostility and frustration palpable.
After the war, my father plodded through a series of low-paying jobs, as a mechanic or a parts department manager for various auto dealerships, never much more. He held a white-collar job at Chrysler for about one year, but one day was fired along with the friend who got it for him.
I realize that my generation grew up in an America within a decade of the war’s ending. Our parents, teachers, and entertainers so successfully shielded us from the horrors of war that even by the time we were coming of age, during Vietnam, we were still clueless about what war looked like, how it dehumanized people, and what America’s exaggerated role in World War II really meant.
As I write this, I wonder what hell my father endured in Europe. He spoke to me about it obliquely and only once when I was seven or eight years old. He had been going through a box of Nazi medals that included a gun he took from a German soldier.
He never shared any combat stories about his time overseas, but he did tell us about another American soldier, some guy from the South whom he had almost beat up. They had been talking, and it came out that my father was Jewish. This guy said, “You can’t be Jewish. You don’t have any horns.” My father threw the Southerner up against the wall. But someone intervened. Eventually, my father understood that the G.I. was just genuinely ignorant, and it was his first time away from home. His only experience with a Jew was with a statue of Moses that he’d seen, hence the “horns.” He didn’t think he was insulting anyone. I guess that today this soldier could be a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Another expedient way to define my father might be to describe what, or whom, he was nothing like, and that’s his younger brother, Al. Here was someone who had figured out how to make money by cashing in on the war. While my dad was away fighting in Europe, Al made his first million dollars trading ration coupons on the black market.
My father would have us in stitches reading the warm, tear-stained letters that Al wrote to him while he was in the army, promising to help him get started when he came back from the war. “What the war has taught all of us is that ‘family’ means everything. I am doing great here in Brooklyn, buying up real estate on Coney Island Avenue. Your future, Ethel, and Bruce are going to be secure. Can’t wait for your safe return. Love, Al.” In reality, my father ended up working for Al at a gas station, earning minimum wage. Their father pumped gas there, too, also making the minimum. He dropped dead of a heart attack lifting something heavy. Following his death, my father and Al did not speak for years.
Eventually, Al hooked my father up with his own station, but the deal was structured in such a draconian way that my father could never have dug himself out of the debt it would require up front. Al had put my father in business with a moonlighting cop, who, according to my parents, ripped them off, didn’t work, and threatened my father if he tried to do anything about it. A year later, my father lost the business, and the debt followed him from then on. My uncle Al would never let him live it down, constantly berating him for his failure. Again, they didn't speak for a period unless they had to, like when their mother died. When my mother died, they finally reconciled and had something of a friendship for that remaining year of my father’s life.
Everyone who knew the two brothers loved my father and feared, disliked, or downright hated his brother, describing my dad as the sweetest man in the world, while simultaneously assigning epithets to Uncle Al like “nasty S.O.B.” My father would say of Al: “I worship the ground that is waiting for him.”
I saw Al differently. Al was the financial success and my father, as Al would many times laughingly say to me, “had not a pot to piss in.” By the time I was eleven years old, I was determined to have a relationship with my wealthy uncle.
Al decided to invest in the booming bowling-alley business—hundreds had been built across the country after the war—and was operating a number of lanes in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The latter was across the street from Yankee Stadium, at 850 River Avenue. Even though we lived more than an hour away, I saw this as my opportunity to get a glimpse into his world.
My parents didn’t exactly approve of my pursuing him, but they didn’t try to stop me, either. Al put me to work at less than minimum wage. I would take the D train to Stadium Lanes after school and spend my weekends working, thereby combining three of my passions: bowling, the Yankees, and long subway rides. In the three or four years I was there, I staffed the shoe desk, assigned lanes, repaired the machines, prepped food for the restaurant, and bussed tables, all before I finally got to work the main counter. This was the South Bronx in the early sixties. It was still a mostly middle-class neighborhood, but in transition; our customers were white, black, Hispanic, and other ethnicities. It was an exotic and exciting experience that taught me how to get along with anyone, and allowed me to hone my ability to see what was going on inside someone, a skill I first acquired at home.
Most of my fellow employees despised Al, though they also feared and respected him—he ruled his little kingdom. He was also fucking one of the desk workers, whom I had an awakening crush on. They would spend hours in his tiny office, and it drove me more than a little crazy.
Many nights, Al would drive me part of the way home. We bonded to some degree, and I realized that I wanted to combine some of his strengths with my father’s sweeter disposition. I’d create a persona, an amalgamation, and include the skills I developed having to deal with my unpredictable domestic environment. Although this persona served me well in my career, I suspect it’s also why my personal relationships have been so challenging.
After my father died, I continued to work at the bowling alley, but my newfound rebelliousness and my sense of freedom—plus my interest in sex, drugs, and rock and roll—made me a less-than-ideal employee. The manager decided to let me go, and Al didn’t get in his way.
A few years later, I found myself sitting across from my uncle in his dingy bowling-alley office looking for some clue as to who my father really was. Al's only response was, “Your father was the only G.I. that didn't fuck around on his wife when he was in the war.” I walked away wondering how anyone could sum up a life with an insipid (and probably untrue) eulogy. He may have been trying to illustrate why I should respect my father’s loyalty, but I knew Al had no respect for my mother and thought my dad was wrong to have stayed with her all of those years.
Toward the end of his life, my father had started talking to me about school. To him it was important, but to me it was an imprisoning institution and always had been. In grade school, on the first day of class, the teachers would distribute these composition notebooks, and I’d immediately flip to the calendar in the back and circle the school days so that I could begin X-ing them out. In many ways I was similar to my father. I had been a disturbed kid, rebellious, and I guess that with all the dysfunction at home, I could not relate to the context of a classroom. I was reflexively distrustful of adults, and I would react very differently to each teacher, each authority figure. The fact that I was a poor student must have added to the stress my father was already dealing with.
After my mother’s suicide, my conflict with him came to a head (and almost blows) when I dropped out of high school at age sixteen. My political consciousness was hardly developed, and I wanted to join the army to get away and maybe learn some kind of trade. At that time, the army would allow a minor to enlist with a guardian’s consent.