Well, shit. The trouble with wobbly trains on wobbly train tracks is that, sooner or later, those motherfuckers come off the tracks and then there’s a heap of twisted wreckage and smoke, and those of us who were standing trackside as the train wobbled by all look at each other and mumble, “Well, kinda told you so, no?”
Amy Winehouse, dead at 27. People die from addictive disease. You keep doing the shit and getting fucked up and bouncing in and out of rehab, and sooner or later your number is gonna come up. Sooner or later, you’re not going to get another chance. Those of us who have spent any time around what’s euphemistically called “the rooms” recognize this. We’ve gone to the funerals, and when that broken-hearted parent or sibling or child asks us “Why?” we shrug our shoulders and respond: “Because that’s what happens to alcoholics and addicts.” It’s no mystery. You either accept the gift of sobriety and recovery when it’s offered to you, gratis, and then you treasure that gift by putting it into practice and then paying it forward to others who need it the way you needed it, or else you bounce back and forth until something like this happens.
So, yeah. I look at an event like this filtered through the prism of, at this point, 18 years, 10 months and two days of continuous sobriety, with periods of solid recovery interspersed with other periods of being a miserable old cuss because I wasn’t working it. I’ve also buried a few people with similar stories who weren’t famous. It’s always the same with people who don’t understand addictive disease: “Why?”
Anyway, I’m not one of those people who thinks that anyone who picks up a drink or a drug is an alcoholic or a drug addict, but I sure can recognize a drunk or a junkie when I see one, as in: takes one to know one. Oh, well. Rest in peace, sweet wasted princess, and hope that others can learn from your example.
Last night I played music in Stockton, at a cafe I got permanently 86’ed from 30 years ago for drunkenly heckling poets. I get to play places like that now, because I’ve learned and accepted what happens to me when I take that first drink or do that first hit or line or pill. Shit happens. Handcuffs mysteriously appear out of the blackness of night. So, instead, I just show up with my guitar and songs and goofy stories, and if the stars are aligned nicely like they were last night, a good time is had by all.
I wish that Amy Winehouse could have experienced what I have in sobriety. Sadly, she won’t. —Jackson Griffith
Ever just have to have a nail clipper? I got to that point this evening, and I needed a few other items, including something to hang Buddha and Elvis on the walls, so I walked the block from the new place to the Rite-Aid. I’d never been inside that Rite-Aid; the last time I’d been inside that building, it was a Lucky supermarket, or maybe an Albertson’s. And I remembered the walk, too, because when I walked out to the alley lot behind my new place, I could see my old window, on the back of the haunted Victorian where I was living in 1991 through 1993, the first apartment of two in that building where I lived, the one where I spent most of my time in a whiskey-induced stupor.
The walk to Rite-Aid made me recall a few impaired stumbles to Lucky, maybe “just for a little wine with dinner,” which would change to something harder once I hit the liquor department. Lots of those walks, really. I guess the reason I’m going on about this is that here it is 18 or 19 years later, and I’m back in my old neighborhood, albeit older and wiser with nearly two decades of continuous sobriety under my belt. Been through a lot, gained a lot of stuff, got married, got divorced, lost a lot of stuff, watched my daughter grow up and move away, took care of my mom until she died, flailed around like a fish out of water for a while, ate a whole bunch of what the French might call merde on a baguette, as in metaphorical sandwiches that a metaphorical coprophage might savor, and now here I am. If you would have told me that in my mid-50s I’d be living in a little 1970s apartment in my old hood, relatively broke, alone and happy as a clam, I’d have responded to you in jaunty fashion with those two little one-syllable English words that typically accompany a stiff middle finger.
But heck whiz and gosh darn, I’m probably too nice for that these days, or at least right now. Ask me later, and I may tell you where to go. Right now? Sitting two blocks and change from the pad, inside Weatherstone, typing and listening to music and looking at all the women who are too young for me; I guess I’m more attracted to women who have a few crow’s feet, not to mention a pathological aversion to plastic surgery and ersatz mammaries.
I’m kind of letting go of a lot of things these days, and alone is good. Yesterday, I was going into Peet’s on J for a big coffee before going to help a friend move, and I saw this woman sitting on the deck who looked kinda familiar because I really didn’t give her any kind of once-over. As I was leaving, she got up and said hi, and I realized it was, well, someone I’d been thoroughly enamored with for the year we were together and a lot of time after she gave me the bum’s rush from her life. What was weird was that my emotional response was so flat, like she could have been your sister, or the sister of the guy selling pizzas down the street, and not this beautiful woman I got all heartbroken over when she decided it was in her better interests not to spend the rest of her life with me. She was on her way to another yoga class — big surprise there. I guess I finally care as much about her as she’s cared about me for a really long time. But all is not completely lost; I guess I got a few pretty good songs out of the deal. So thank you, Lisa.
Lisa also brought me a thangka back from India a few years ago, when she went on a Buddhist pilgrimage. Tonight I hung it up on the wall my zafu faces, which sits on the zabuton she bought me, too. None of these things have had a home for a long time, and now they do. I have a nice bed, and I climb into it early, and then I can get up really early and sit on my zafu and get a meditation session in before prayers, shower, granola and, if time permits, a little guitar picking, before heading south toward the 209 and a job that I’m really grateful to have.
Oh, and the other thing I hung up tonight was my holy Elvis tapestry, which was defaced and sliced by my ex-wife in a fit of anger, but she had enough good sense not to destroy it. Which I’m also grateful for, because its margin is covered with signatures — Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Los Lobos, Chris Isaac, Mark Knopfler, Randy Newman, Richard Thompson, a bunch of others, plus some surprising ones I’d forgotten about — Dusty Baker, and Angelina Jolie’s father Jon Voight, who wandered into my office one evening when no one else was around, looking for an appointment across the street. There are some other names on there, too. Anyway, I pieced it together as best I could and hung it up in a place of honor.
So that’s my home sweet home, a very nice place to be right now. —Jackson Griffith
This coming Tuesday, providing that I don’t go out and get all liquored up and stupid this weekend, I’ll celebrate 18 years of continuous clean and sober time. I guess that means that my sobriety will be old enough to vote, or get drafted to go and fight a war somewhere. Maybe it just means that I’ve spent a long time living without a cocktail. Hell, I don’t know. Sometimes we complicate things too much, when they should remain simple.
What I do know is that I just moved into the Midtown Sacramento neighborhood where I was living when I got sober 18 years ago. In fact, I’m living directly behind the haunted Victorian where I woke up on a busted futon in my third-floor eyrie one Sunday afternoon in September 1992 cradling an empty quart bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey, to the tune of an Ornette Coleman album on the stereo (Free Jazz, the one with the Jackson Pollock cover that looked like my brain felt at that moment), with the late Bobby Burns keeping time between drum rolls and cymbal crashes on a set of drums we’d apparently loaded into my beater car and shlepped up the stairs earlier that day, before we got all drunk and demolished my apartment and I passed out.
Walking to the Weatherstone, where I spent a lot of time when I was living in the Victorian that summer while trying to get sober, takes me down the same stretch of H Street that I used to walk when I made my late-night treks to the corner bodega at 20th and H, which I used to call the Loser Magnet Market, for smokes, a fresh bottle and maybe a microwave burrito for some marginal nutrition. I got to where I was making the trip in my bathrobe, and old white terrycloth thing with an Aerosmith logo embroidered in purple on the breast, which I’d gotten as one of the many pieces of record-company swag that flowed my way when I worked as an editor and writer at this music magazine that the late, great Tower Records published, Pulse. I think I was trying to make some kind of Brian Wilson reference by wearing the bathrobe, but can’t remember really. Not sure.
Toward the end of my drinking, I remember one weekend afternoon, stumbling up H after finishing off a bottle of Jägermeister. Something was deeply wrong, and I realized that I was blind above my eyebrows, that is, from that point of vision congruent with my eyebrows and above, it was black. I had a lot of those kinds of days toward the end, and that summer, what had been a long career of just getting fucked up, passing out and then waking up turned into a terrifying ride downhill where I no longer could control my drinking, and I had to put alcohol in me just to settle my nerves, but when I did that, I was off to the races and couldn’t stop.
In my general dishevelment and disarray, I would have to stumble past a fourplex on my next block, unless I wanted to walk a block out of my way and I didn’t have the stamina or sustained focus for that task, so invariably I would run into this pregnant woman, who would go out of her way to accost me on the sidewalk. “You need to stop drinking, Jackson,” she would tell me. “I’m worried about you. You’re turning into a complete wreck.” Other people would later volunteer that they had visions of me pushing a shopping cart around the neighborhood.
That woman gave birth two weeks before I put the bottle down. I still see her around, and her husband, and the baby, who’s grown up to be a fine, strapping lad named Eli Perry. So Linda, and Jerry, thanks for being there on H Street when I’d stumble by so long ago.
Y’lnow, I’ve got a lot to be grateful for these days. Cool September mornings remind me of that. —Jackson Griffith