It was a crisp morning, there was a little chill to the air, but not cold enough to confirm that the warm summer months were truly over. It was about 6 am and the overhead traffic was pretty thin, after all, it was Monday morning, Labor Day. The only traffic he really heard was the rumbling of the combination vehicles and their “jake brakes” kicking in as they slowed around the Forest Park curve. Jefferson Payne Cooper III, rolled over and inhaled deeply. He may have slept underneath yet another highway underpass, but he relished in the humility and simplicity it afforded. This was his therapy. “Skimpy” was how he was known by most. But to his family of Boston Brahmins he was Trey, and expected to produce JPC IV. The more he thought of if, the more he longed for the opportunity to make it so. He did not for one second push the thought out of his head, dismissing it as a delusional fantasy. After all he was 35 years old, living as a transient, and more often than not pitching his tent in wooded areas near the highway or in the pigeon fouled shelter below an underpass.
He is a proud man who had walked a very hard road for the last couple of years. He was a successful man. As a child, although he had all of the creature comforts one would expect a child growing up in a wealthy Boston family to possess, something very important was lacking. It certainly wasn’t love. There was plenty of that in his house. His father was very established in the family law firm, which was started by his Great Grandfather, a Major in the Union Army, shortly after General Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Southwestern Virginia. Stories of his Grandfather’s participation and service in the war had been passed down through the generations and filled Skimpy’s ears as a young child. He recalled tales of dead Union Soldiers being laid to rest in the front yard of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington, Virginia estate, to insure that the “traitorous bastard” who had forsaken the Union Army for the South could never return home. He heard of General Sherman’s brutal and unforgiving tactics which bombed and burned the southern infrastructure back to the bronze age. He heard the tale of how his grandfather, then a rising star in the Boston Legal community, met Abraham Lincoln, shortly before his death, prompting Jeff Cooper to do his part to “bind up the Nation’s wounds” by joining the Union Army.
Skimpy loved the stories his father would recall of his Grandfather’s legacy, including the one where he “almost” purchased the Boston Red Sox in 1914. Skimpy’s father and mother encouraged his youthful fascination with music. It was only the best teachers and music camps for their child. Never once did they push him in the direction of going to law school to follow in the footstep of his forefathers. Then it was a green line ride away from their house on Joy St. to the Berklee School of Music.
Skimpy found great success at Berklee, he also found a good friend and future band mate, Burleigh Coggins. Lee, as he is known, introduced Skimpy to a bass player Lee had met while busking with his girlfriend at a Grateful Dead Show in Hartford, Ct. It was Les, the bass player, Skimpy was traveling to see. He was coming unannounced, as he was wholly unsure whether or not his band mate had any desire whatsoever to see him. For all Les knew Skimpy was in the witness protection program, for he had completely dropped out of site. It was Les who found Skimpy, unconscious in the the band’s dressing room with a needle sticking out of his weathered and pocked arm.
Skimpy’s problem always came back to the little piece of the puzzle which were missing in his life. That little hint of alienation that he experienced as a child. Although, pretty unselfish, with others, he longed for what they had. Everybody seemed to have something he did not. The worst part was it was, what he craved was never anything tangible or material, it couldn’t be purchased or held. But what they had…he wanted. Skimpy descended from a long line of sturdy drinkers. His great grandfather remarkably sired his Grandfather on a very drunken 67th birthday. He died shortly after his 96th a whiskey glass in his hand. Skimpy took his first drink at an early age. He took his first drug, when he was 11. He and a couple of his dorm mates from Wilbraham-Monson Academy had one of the seniors who could “buy”, pick them up some beer. He also provided them with a joint of some very heady nuggets. They cut class and spent the afternoon in the woods near the reservoir drinking and getting high. This led to an appreciation of the finer things in life, good music such as the Grateful Dead and later on Phish. The appreciation extended to illicit substances, adventures on the road, mystical musical journeys on psychedelics. As the success of his and Lee’s Band progressed, So did his taste for more exotic items such as nitrous oxide, cocaine, Absinthe. Popularity took its toll. You see, that void… that emptiness never went away. The act of coveting what he could not acquire caused him so much pain. It was unbearable at times. He always filled the void with drugs, alcohol and sex. There were always enthusiastic and experimental young women seduced by the romanticism of the lifestyle a career in music produced. That void was always being filled for different reasons. Early on Skimpy shunned the family fortune. It was an adjustment. He didn’t totally cut himself off, it was available to him if he needed or wanted it. But he wanted to make it on his own. And yes there were days when the only meal he had was from the moldering deli platter in the backstage area. Drugs filled the void he felt in his hunger. The lonely days on the road when those most important to him were absent were washed away with the cooler in the in dressing room and the drugs the audience always seemed to want to share. As success came, so did alienation. He couldn’t go to the 7-11 without someone recognizing him. He got to the point where all he felt was animosity about, and the longing for what everyone else had. His band mates Lee, Les and their drummer, Fennel, could do nothing but stand by and watch him self destruct. They had tried to intervene, but he wanted nothing to do with it. He felt nothing at all. The only time he felt anything was when he was getting high.
After a gig he didn’t remember, he was resuscitated in an ER after being administered narcan. He OD’d on cocaine and heroin which he had been injecting for about two years. It was that night he decided he would check out. He went to a detox, something he promised he would never do again. The following three months he isolated himself on a remote island, owned by his family, off the Cape, near Hyannisport. He met with a counselor daily. He let his hair grow and grew a beard. He was unrecognizable as the clean cut prep school hippie who was the keyboard player for the Jam Band Pry.
He flew to the West Coast on a private plane, utilizing an alias. He landed in San Francisco with the clothes on his back, a knapsack which included a tooth brush, toothpaste, a couple of changes of clothes and, pens and a few moleskin writing tablets. The pack also included a passport sealed in a manila envelope and some foul weather gear and a stack of when and where pamphlets which would direct him to AA and NA meetings nationwide. He wandered around the Bay area for a few weeks. Taking in the sights and connecting with the people on the street. He talked with the junkies and the crack heads and shared his experience strength and hope. With $20 dollars in his pocket he earned doing an odd job, He began to walk back to the East Coast.
Once again he embarked on this journey with his family in the dark. They wouldn’t understand anyway, His attorney gave them a prepared statement that he was at a religious retreat in the Cayman Islands where he was studying to be a monk. So let them think the worst he thought. They would just dismiss this sojourn as “another relapse.” He made no excuses for his stubbornness. He had some Karma to work out and this was the way he wanted to do it. He had found spirituality in the meetings. He found his higher power in the teachings of Buddha. He was going to heal himself by giving freely of himself. Not family money, not contributions to charity. He wanted to give what he had always craved what was missing in his life. That is how the void would be filled. And slowly as he traveled, doing odd jobs, washing dishes and flattening cardboard in exchange for a meal in a restaurant, he began to heal. He helped downtrodden folks get on their feet, not with money but with caring and compassion and honest selfless action. He changed flat tires for mothers with babes in arms Refusing the money he looked like he needed in exchange for a gift of food from one of the shopping bags in their back seat. He accepted rides from people at meetings. He would enjoy their fellowship and shared recovery over coffee and food only to walk to his next destination after bidding them farewell. Sometimes he traveled north and back down south but it was always with an easterly bearing. Those he encountered accepted him at face value as one of them, a recovering addict who had managed to not pick up a drug, one day at a time.
His pride resurfaced. If he ever felt that another person he encountered was extending charity instead of an honest dollar for an honest day’s work. He would refuse the money. He thought of line from a song by the Drunk Stuntmen that he wished he had written, “I’m so Stubborn I’d would rather work for free.” Although he did look road weary, he did manage to stay clean both physically and spiritually. He ate a healthy diet and showered regularly. He occasionally popped into a music store to tickle the ivories and mentally run through some lyrics he had written.
This walkabout had produced 9 songs. Most of the stores he had stopped in were little mom and pop music stores in states such as Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Tennessee, and finally up along the East Coast. Nobody cares if you sit down to play in a music store, if you sound like you know what you are doing. He always turned a few heads on these little trips. His ego noticed.
The last time he hit a music store was in NYC five days ago. There were two kids in their 20s looking at guitars. One was wearing a Pry tour shirt. They kept eyeing him suspiciously, moving closer and listening to what he was running through. They kept whispering to each other. “It’s him, listen to that shit!”
“No it isn’t, look at him.”
“It is HIM! Nobody plays like that.” The kid who was trying to convince his friend they were in the presence of Skimpy Cooper strapped on a guitar he wanted to try out, and quoted a familiar line. Until he heard that guitar, Skimpy was oblivious to what was happening behind him. He should have known that if he hung around enough music stores, even incognito, someone was sure to recognize him. They say in the rooms if you hang around a barbershop long enough you are eventually gonna get a haircut.
But Skimpy was unprepared for how he would feel when he heard what he did. He heard that guitar line and a chill went up his spine like a bolt of lightning. He ignored it. The kid continued noodling with chords and scales for a few minutes. Skimpy returned to working out the new song, running through the lyrics mentally. From behind, he heard another blistering guitar lick from one of HIS songs. He thought to himself, “Fuck, that kid sounds like Lee.” The kid continued with the song playing it flawlessly.
Skimpy stopped what he was doing and listened. He turned to look at the kid in the Pry shirt. And he looked straight into his eyes. The kid was smiling and staring straight back at him. There was no need for him to look at the fret board, he had the music in his heart. He was a natch, Skimpy thought. Just like Lee . Just like himself. He never stopped loving music. He stopped loving what music had allowed him to become. But now he knew, sure as he was born, that it wasn’t music or anything else that had cause his life to crumble into a festering hole of obsession compulsion and addiction. He probably would have checked out if he were a lawyer or a stock broker or whatever else it was he chose to do, he would have ended up where he was. But guess what. He was happy. He had to go through those experiences to get to this point in his life. He had not felt that emptiness for some time. Even though he was living life very simply, he did have some money in his pocket. He didn’t have to walk the remainder of his journey, he chose to. It was a journey he felt was drawing to a conclusion. Of course it was, with every step he took back toward New England he was convinced he could handle it. It, being life. Eighteen months after his journey had begun, he knew he had to get on with it.
Where to begin? Obviously connecting with his old band mates was priority. Especially the one who found him unconscious that night, Les.
He had songs which were destined to be heard by legions of eager fans, two of whom were in his presence and caught a little glimpse. But did he have what he had left behind, that which was most important to him? There was only one way to find out. As all of these thoughts raced through his head he listened and observed.
He looked into the eyes of his young fan. The kid had gotten to the point in the song where it was Skimpy’s time to solo. The kid kept playing and looking at Skimpy expectantly. The kid built up to the lead in and Skimpy pounced on his keyboard. He played so freely, that guitar, those sweet sweet sounds egged him on. If he could only do this again with Lee and the rest of the crew, he had found happiness walking the country and doing the right thing for the right reasons. The kid playing the guitar leaned into his awestruck friend and simply said, “told ya.” A small but clueless crowd stopped to listen, not really grasping what was happening. The employees in the store lived for moments like these. It wasn’t as frequent as you would think that two musicians get on the same waves length and succumb to this brand of spontaneity. After the impromptu session the kid blathered at Skimpy. Asking all of the questions where have you been what are you doing, are you going to rejoin the band? And for a change these two fans had his rapt attention and in no way were bothersome or distracting.
Oh, what a release that was. That was the best he felt in years. He busied himself packing up and preparing for his short trek north. He was in Springfield and needed to be 20 miles north. He wanted to get rid of the current look he had and get some new clothes. He was looking somewhere between running man Forrest Gump and Howard Hughes the hermit.
He spied a Barber Shop in the South End of Springfield and walked in…
To Be Continued.
Once again…I’m Running Hard Out of Muskrat Flats.