Back in the 1990s, I met a bass player named Kevin. He played a gig with my friend Cody at a bar on Avenue A called Brownies. Then I invited him to a jam session to work on some of my material.
He got really excited about my fingerstyle playing and asked me to come record at his apartment in Greenpoint.
Williamsburg was only just beginning to be the hot, new neighborhood. And Greenpoint was still Siberia for a Manhattanite.
I was agog when I walked into Kevin’s huge loft down a quiet, tree-lined block. I was living in a cramped, 6-floor walk-up in the East Village. It only barely qualified as a one-bedroom.
I looked at his sky-high ceiling and thought, “This is where you can live if you leave the City.” Everyone still referred to Manhattan as “the City.”
I hate that it’s worth mentioning, but Kevin is black.
I was raised in the racist South. Until the day I die, I will be acutely self-conscious about my interactions with black people. It was unthinkable as a kid that I’d go over to a black kid’s house to play. That imprinting goes deep.
Now here I was going over to a black guy’s house to play.
I felt like I was watching myself from above: “Look at you, going to a black guy’s loft on a tree-lined block … in Greenpoint.”
Kevin broke out some weed so that we could get in the right mindset. Then we started listening to tracks.
The music was a cross between dub and ambient. Bird and ocean sounds, low synthesizer pulses, popping bubbles of abstract noises with bass-loops and beats coming and going. An aural tapestry. A sound painting. Oneiric.
And we were stoned.
So I was in a black guy’s loft on a tree-lined block in Greenpoint stoned and working on a trippy soundscape.
Then I noticed that it was really good weed. Not that I was a connoisseur. So it was more like when someone who doesn’t know anything about wine can actually tell that one is good. The weed was so good that I could tell that it was good.
The euphoria was calm and normalizing, as though blissful mellowness was our natural condition, as though the weed had corrected something, as though it had redeemed me from The Fall.
And the pulsing soundscape was the aural externalization of this condition.
After I recorded a bunch of guitar snippets, Kevin’s front door buzzed. He jumped up and said, “I’ll be right back.”
There was no “Huh? Who could that be?” No “Honey,” to his girlfriend, “are we expecting UPS?”
He was calm but immediate. Just stopped what he was doing and went downstairs.
In the silence while he was out, his pretty girlfriend started chopping vegetables in the kitchen across the loft. ASMR wasn’t even a thing yet back then, but on top of being stoned, listening to her gentle staccato on that chopping board mesmerized me.
Kevin returned to the console and immediately resumed work. It popped into my head, “Ooooohhh, he sells weed!”
Now I got the whole picture. I was stoned in a big loft on a tree-lined block in Greenpoint working on a trippy soundscape with a black guy who pays for it all by selling weed to people who came to his front door while his pretty girlfriend chops peppers and onions.
She scraped the aromatics into the skillet and they started to sizzle.
When we were done, Kevin paid me with a small bag of his product. Later, at a bar on Avenue C, I shared some with a scenester named Mike. He was a fixture in the otherwise amorphous entourage around the guitarist from the band Blind Melon, whom I knew from Mississippi. Mike was a professional partier with a palate for weed much finer than mine. A week later, he came up to me and said, “Um …that is weed you gave me … Man … what’s the story?”
So it WAS as good as I thought!
And there you have it. When you sell weed that good, you sit in a huge loft down a tree-lined block in Greenpoint recording trippy sound tapestries while your pretty girlfriend sizzles peppers and onions.
But Kevin was Caribbean. He sold a plant. There was no Reefer Madness outlaw vibe to the scene. It wasn’t just that the scene was mellow, with the pan sizzling and the trippy soundscape music pulsing. It was that Kevin himself lacked any of the quirks I’ve encountered in people operating outside the law. He wasn’t doing curls with a dumbbell or chain smoking. His glance didn’t dart around. He didn’t squirm or fidget. He didn’t go into long digressions about who the CIA had assassinated.
The impression of a quiet life on a tree-lined block with the pretty girl in the kitchen wasn’t forced. It was a perfect picture in its way.
After this encounter, I found myself wondering how I could step into my own perfect picture. I’d be sitting on my torn-up sofa watching the hand-me-down TV trying, I guess, to pose for an imaginary observer. Look at him, playing scales on his old strat while watching TV in his messy apartment.
But how do you make that look like anything? The way I stretched out my legs? The way I held my cigarette?
One night around that time, I was standing outside a theatre where a play was running for which I’d written some music. A tiny, damp church basement. I was waiting for everyone else to finish up so that we could go to the bar. I was wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, the kind that was still standard issue in downtown New York. I was leaning against an old brick wall under a bare bulb. A Spring night. I didn’t really need the jacket.
Suddenly, I “saw” myself, like an iconic photograph. Young man having a smoke. For a stretched-out minute I was both the young man in his leather jacket blowing smoke under a bare bulb as well as someone walking by noticing him. Inside and outside the picture at the same time.
That was the trick. How to be inside and outside at the same time
A glimpse, a flash of what it’s like to enjoy being who I actually was.
Kevin probably didn’t think he had the perfect life in particular. For all I knew, he had a fight with the pretty girlfriend just before I arrived. Maybe she was only playing the role of the perfect girlfriend, with her mellow smile, to goad Kevin by showing how indifferent she was about the spat. She knows she’s right. Cooking to spite him. Maybe the person at the door wasn’t a customer but someone higher up in some cartel urging Kevin to move more product or else.
Or maybe Kevin didn’t sell weed. Maybe he worked some soul-killing office job like mine. Maybe this was the first day he’s worked on his music in weeks.
But all that’s beside the point. He could be every bit as mellowed-out as he seemed, the girlfriend every bit as calm and sweet. The question is whether he had any sense of being inside and outside his own picture. Could he SEE that he had a cool life?
The more I think about this paradox, the more it feels like a secret key to life.
When I travel, I mainly imagine living in the other place. Maybe everyone does.
Some long boulevard in Paris, you imagine standing on that wrought iron balcony to check the weather before heading to Les Deux Maggot.
Or you see a staircase down an alley. What’s behind the door at the top? What if I lived there? What if I was a painter in that apartment in the back?
Or a town by the sea. You imagine working on one of the boats then riding home on an old bike at sunset, an egret silhouette crossing the sky.
You sit in a bar in New Orleans. What if this old bar was MY bar, with the rusty Jax Beer sign over my table? Same old street car clattering by as I walk home on St. Charles.
But if I lived on a street off St. Charles, would I “see” myself walking under the live oaks? Does the fisherman “see” himself pedaling home across the bridge?
Hell, I live in New York. Back when I had my session with Kevin, I was on East 13th Street near 2nd Avenue. Same block where Scorsese filmed TAXI DRIVER. A visitor from the Midwest would think I lived in a movie. A gritty New York movie. But it was just my life.
What’s the mental trick to stretch out that flash where I’m inside and outside at the same time? That moment outside the basement theater.
I think the bare bulb was the key. It made me think of Van Gogh, the way he would’ve painted the radiating light with yellow dashes or something. So I think I felt like I was in a painting. The bulb made me feel it.
With Kevin, I think the peppers and onions, the chopping then the sizzling, is what turned it all into a picture.
But, again, the question is whether the chopping and sizzling worked for Kevin, to make him feel like he was inside and outside at the same time. Maybe it’s a two-way street. The bare bulb is what let me see myself outside my own picture, but, for anyone passing by, the bare bulb is what could make them imagine that they were me, inside the picture. Maybe if Kevin noticed the cooking across the room, it let him see himself through MY eyes: yes, yes, here I am on a tree-lined block in Greenpoint making trippy music while the pan sings.
I know that in my own cooking, sautéing peppers and onions always seems to cast a spell. A kind of instant Zen. The Buddhist masters are always talking about reaching the point where you’re just doing what you’re doing. I’m scrubbing a tile. That’s it. I’m shooting an arrow. That’s it. Just one with the moment. But to get to this point you have to go through a whole spiritual journey. You have to work hard to achieve this Zen consciousness. But sautéing peppers and onions seems to offer a shortcut.
Especially now that I have a good cast iron skillet. It sharpens and deepens the sizzling and intensifies the scent. Like I can almost see the separate aromas of the onions and peppers and olive oil rising and intertwining in streams. And, again, the effect is instant Zen. I’m cooking dinner. That’s it. And part of this Zen effect is that same sense of being inside the picture and outside at the same time. Look at that guy just cooking dinner on a quiet Saturday afternoon with a cardinal singing in the yard outside the screen door.