on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2017 15 Mai

Stepping into the Light

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 5 Comments

He was one of those eccentric friends I seem to collect – a creative right down to the cellular level, but a troubled soul: He had never quite found his footing. He may have been on the edge financially, but you’d never know it from looking at him: in his elegant suits, scarves, and homburg, he cut a colorful profile in the increasingly drab and generic San Francisco social landscape. He was definitely old San Fran.

On any given day, you could find him in certain coffeehouses, poring over the New York Times Book Review or some esoteric text, occasionally scribbling down ideas in his ubiquitous notebook, chuckling to himself in a knowing, endearing way. He had a kind word for everyone and unconditionally loved and accepted me. I suspect he did the same for everyone he knew.

An artist at heart, he had once been a drummer for indie bands down in Los Angeles, as well as an aspiring actor, waiting tables in a fine Italian restaurant in to make ends meet until he got his big break. When I met him, he was a writer, living in San Francisco, working for catering companies to pay his bills. He turned me on to all sorts of great music and films. His tastes were eclectic – Faure to Terry Riley, Joanna Newsom to Chet Baker to Nina Rota. He could sing, precisely and in perfect tune, passages – even entire movements – from classical pieces I barely knew. He was once flown to New York City to audition for the Blue Man Group. He didn’t get the gig.

His friends all suspected he carried a heavy burden but, if he did, he mostly kept it to himself, preferring to speak of his mystical experiences, his favorite visual artists and filmmakers, or his latest conspiracy theories. He was a riot, although he could also suddenly become deadly earnest. His shadow lurked just below the surface of his banter.

We had a ritual. I would drive into the city to see a show, usually at SF Jazz in the bustling Hayes Valley, which happened to be his favorite haunt. We would always meet at the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk. After a far-reaching philosophical discussion about the role of hallucinogens in the evolution of human consciousness or an in-depth Jungian analysis of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, we would head over to Two Sisters or Arlequin for a late afternoon bottle of wine. I would then take him out to an early dinner and go to the show on my own. Sometimes I even took him with me. It was always a delight to see my whimsical friend. He enriched my life.

Then, about two years ago, came the inexplicable seizures. The first one occurred while he was waiting in his car for the seniors he drove to medical appointments—his job ever since the catering gigs had dried up. He woke up in an emergency room, the beginning of a cascade of bad juju. Because of the seizure, he lost his driver’s license. He could no longer work.

The next seizure wasn’t so lucky: He fell backwards on the sidewalk and sustained a serious brain injury. He was in the hospital in a coma, convalescing for almost two months. He recovered slowly, but was never quite the same afterwards. Visiting him there in that huge, impersonal hospital was devastating. Other people came to see him as well, but he was, for the most part, unaware of his visitors. His father, who had advanced Parkinson’s, made a super-human pilgrimage to see his son for what would be the last time: He died while my friend was still in a coma.

When my friend was finally released, he was a changed man. Between the lingering symptoms from the brain injury and the side effects of the anticonvulsants he was on, I never knew what to expect. Always a bit of a loose cannon, his thoughts would careen wildly from one topic to another. One moment he would regale me with a wild tale of the trip he took with his ailing father to see John of God in the jungles of the Amazon. The next moment was all about the origins of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. On more than one occasion, he spent the entire day speaking with an annoying fake Italian accent. He couldn’t help himself. He had, for lack of a better word, become unhinged.

One day he told me he had had a miraculous healing. An angelic presence had come to him and had swept his body clean of his affliction. He was certain he no longer needed the medications, which he complained were turning him into a zombie, and that he was completely cured. I gently pleaded with him to stay on his meds. His next seizure occurred in his kitchen and knocked out one of his front teeth. He never fully smiled again.

I couldn’t fix his life. Nobody could. All I could do was give him a day of pleasure here and there.

Last Tuesday, just after midnight, he left a note on the kitchen table in the apartment he shared with his sister, walked over to a nearby park, and hanged himself. He was only 51. I can see him methodically cleaning his room, dressing in one of his impeccably tasteful suits, and walking determinedly in the moonlight, to the specific tree he had no doubt picked out beforehand. I can’t help it—my mind plays that dark movie over and over again.

I know there is nothing I could’ve done to prevent it. He never confided his morbid thoughts, at least to me. There is something altogether uniquely tragic about suicide—it reverberates in the minds and hearts of those left behind, leaving feelings of guilt and questions that remain forever unanswered.

I hadn’t slept well for days, but I still drove down to the city yesterday for the first time since my friend departed. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a cold wind blowing. We were supposed to have met for our usual ritual. But today I made our customary stops alone. I could feel his presence as I sat on the outdoor concrete bench at Blue Bottle and sipped my mocha. His ghost followed me over to Arlequin, but it just wasn’t in me to order a glass of wine and toast him, as had been my plan. Instead, I got a cup of soup and sat in my chair, at turns morosely staring at the empty chair across the table and watching passersby on the busy street.

Then I walked over to SF Jazz. Eliane Elias was completing her four-night residency with a reunion of Steps Ahead. It was a late afternoon show and vibes player Mike Manieri had only just stepped off the plane, coming in on the red-eye from a gig in Bonn, Germany. He looked frail and tired. Eliane had assembled a crack group of old friends: Peter Erskine on drums, Bob Shepard (replacing the late Mike Brecker) on sax, and her husband, Mark Johnson, on bass.

After playing an extraordinarily beautiful version of the great Don Grolnick tune “Pools,” they got off to a rather shaky start on “Islands.” After that however, it was smooth sailing. They played confidently, with great passion and clarity, each supporting the other as they opened up on some of the Steps’ old material and some things written by Eliane and Mike Manieri, who, despite his jet lag, sounded brilliant. As this life-affirming, optimistic music washed over me, I felt my heart lift. I could sense my departed friend encouraging me to be present with the joy of the moment, as he himself had done in better times.

After the last bit of applause waned, I walked out feeling transformed by the warmth and beauty of the performance. It was still daylight, and I felt that strange sense of displacement one gets after walking out of a movie theater. Dazzled by the light, the cold air biting through my coat, I walked to my car, feeling a sense of peace for the first time in days. I wished my friend well on his way, and felt his blessing wash over me as the wind whipped across the clear, empty blue sky.

This entry was posted on Montag, 15. Mai 2017 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. uwe Meilchen:

    Excellent writing! And you were present for your friend, through thick and thin, I guess that’s what counts in the end and after all! – Sometimes I for my part could do with a little bit of childlike believe that all who’d gone are watching us, far above sitting on a cloud, gazing down on us.

  2. Michael E:

    The pain, the consolation, the passing of time – everything’s comes up and goes down, fragmented, in shiny or blue-tinged details. And music reveals its values, time and time again. Lajla must know some of those places from her times in San Fran. I’ve only been there in my dreams.

  3. Jochen:

    Reading this text was like a journey. Sensitive, colourful and free from false moral.

  4. Lajla Nizinski:

    Brian, we left Berlin in 1980, our best friend had hang himself. We were heading to Haight Ashbury „to step into light“. Actually I spent most of my daytime in City lights bookstore. Big „Trost“.

  5. Brian Whistler:

    Thanks for taking the time to read this. All I can say is it came right from my gut and heart. And thanks for your kind comments.

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