Part One: The Crash (Continued)
Chapter Two: Elijah Muhammad Jones
I mean, when Keisha was seen, people couldn’t look into her, she was shielded, like a chameleon fitting inwards, and also because they just assumed a woman who looked that beautiful had to have hidden depths, had to reward your feelings for her with the realization of who she really was. But as Ahmed discovered, behind her was first nothing at all but self-interest and only when and if you got that, did you begin to get close to Keisha. Sitting in our living room in LA, kicked off the tour, broke (at least until she got her settlement), alone in a city we never felt at home in, I don’t think either of us were particularly worried.
The night she was caught by Ahmed in Austin, as bad as it was, it taught me something very important and while Keisha was reliving the past few years, mulling over the breakdown of her marriage I was content to consider how true love felt and in my soul I could just feel that what I lost in not expressing my physical love for Keisha, I gained in a togetherness that transcended any relationship I had, or apparently would, have. The ties that bound us together were unbreakable by just about anything; even death would have its problems separating us. Perhaps it was one sided, but I was never much of a talker and she needed to hear herself think, but nobody else, not even my own parents could comfort me the way Keisha could. She had a sort of Elijah intuition, that when I was low, she could just stay with quietly by my side till I felt better. I have a large family but I have always felt alone, I’ve always felt like there was no place for me and that I didn’t really matter… but Keisha, because of her I was a family man.
For the next coupla years Keisha found and lost guys and in her mid-30s couldn’t play the beginner so she took what she was given and so did I. Neither of us paid it much mind and when I got upset, as upset as I could, got even more distance, she had a mantra we shared: “We’re doing what we want to do and we’re getting paid for doing it, so shut the fuck up.”
Almost true, as well. I didn’t really want to be a roadie but I did want to do something where I didn’t need to think too much, where I could step back and let life happen to me, and I wanted to be beside Keisha. I knew I loved her, I mean, I knew I was attracted to her and in love with her, and I think I also knew it impeded not my sex life, which wasn’t bad, I’m six foot 3 and built like a linebacker, and in great shape, from all the shoving and the hustling and the moving (I never worked out –my life was one long work out), so I got laid but the few times I tried to be serious about someone, Keisha would be around and I just preferred Keisha. I think family is closeness plus time: she can’t be really family, or at least you can’t be important family, if you don’t share your lives. Then it is something else.
When I was growing up, I shared a room with my big brother and we fought a lot but we were really really close. Like, you spend enough time with someone and you can read them, and share them and your life together is a type of emotional short hand of shared history you use to explain the present. And without the shared history, you are apart and you might be family but you sure aren’t sharing a life.
The proof between me and Keisha was during her marriage to Ahmed, nothing much changed between us. We would speak many times a day. A notoriously deep sleeper, I’d call Keisha on her cell 50 times before she woke up, and her day didn’t begin properly before we spoke, I was with her in the recording studio, roadied for her on the Black Man tour, and when her marriage ended I was still in the same place.
Three months after we got back from Austin, Keisha agreed to a five million buck settlement and spent a lot on a three bedroom house in View Park and over the next couple of years she built her career back together. Keisha got her break when “Lover Come Back To Me” –a flop single off Love Hopes, got covered by the Dixie Chicks. Keisha was invited to sing back up on another song for the trio and the country world discovered she sang black, yes, but not too black. And the reverse happened as well, when A$AP Rocky decided to crossover country it was Keisha he called on to sing the hook on, count em, three songs off his album.
Seven years ago, I was watching a 60s cowboy movie with the sound off and Keisha and her manager, a very rich black entrepreneur called Troy, a bit of a yo yo –Keisha slept with him occasional, which was fine but he was a creep about it, always stroking her while Keisha wanted to talk business. But he was rich and smart, and it was Troy who got “Lover Come Back To Me” to the Dixie Chicks, so the man had some skin in the game. He was trying very very hard to convince Keisha, very hard.
“We have UMAS funding, we have the songwriters, the band, the world at your fingertips right now, Kesh”, he said, stroking her thigh. “Everything is in place and if it hits, if it crosses over to country from r&b, you will be the biggest star of them all. This is the one you’ve been working towards all your life.”
I could hear Keisha sighing deep inside, at 40 years old, she wasn’t too old, she could do it all, she maybe could have the success that should be a dream but it was like ever since the Dixie Chicks gig she had begun truly enjoying her career. There was money, loves, fame –only within the industry true, but within the industry she was well respected, there was peace of mind. She was, dare I say it, happy. Was it worth giving up this time and place for a country album? It wasn’t even like she felt artistically inclined –it would be purely for ego, there was no other reason and did she need it now? Keisha looked over at me and I blinked my eyes once, I didn’t need to say anything. “Don’t look at that loser”, Troy snapped. “Look at here, look at me. Trust me.”
Maybe five years ago she would have trusted Troy, with his slick suits and stinky cologne, flash cars and snappy sales pitch but not now. Not after Ahmed. Finding happiness for a musician like Keisha is so tough, finding happiness for anyone is a tough world to deal with. How could she do it? How could she lose the happiness that had been so hard to find. I remember when I was a kid and Keisha used to come next door to babysit me and I remember when she thought we were asleep she’d quietly cry to herself. I would sit at the top of the stairs and watch her cry. There was no reason, I mean, nothing more than sadness and disposition, but she would just cry and cry and cry. I felt privileged then, maybe that was the exact moment I fell in love with her forever, like the only thing I have with this girl is this secret of her crying and me watching. Later, whatever happened, when the album stiffed, I never saw her cry again. On the trip back to LA from Austin, with her life a huge disaster, she didn’t weaken in the slightest. I feel like she couldn’t do it but I understood her struggle and really, I was simpler, give me something to do and a home with Keisha and I didn’t much want for anything else.
“I don’t know Troy,” she said. “Let’s go to bed and we will think about it.”
I just knew what that meant; I knew where they were going though Troy didn’t. I knew they were going to say goodbye.
A week or so later I got a call from Troy, he had never called me before so I was surprised. He started to scream at me. “You piece of shit.” He snarled. “This is your doing… you got her to turn down the album and now I can’t get to her, I ought to kick your fucking ass.” That made me giggle, not the most appropriate of reactions, true. I was very relaxed, the way when you are at home and I was feeling very at home and not because Keisha had dropped Troy, but because this was my home and it felt like my home, it felt like my home the same way my home in Sunnyside felt like my home. It was where I was most myself.
In some ways, that was the beginning of the man I am now. That moment I felt as though Keisha and I were where we needed to be. Later that year, in Christmas, we went home. My Dad, he would die soon after this visit, was fragile. He had cancer and it meant that a man who is quieter then I am, was quieter still. And Mom looked tired, she knew he was dying and all she wanted was to make him comfortable, and in the quietness, she seemed like a well of tears. It was very upsetting and Keisha, with her parents next door, spent the night with us and slept on the sofa.
My brother Abdul was upstairs, his life was not working out too well and he spent his time brooding, but otherwise it was just my parents alone and I felt really bad for my Mom. My parents were low key, they did what they had to do but they kept their internal life to themselves. So much so that you know how your Dad, knowing he is gonna die, might take the time to have a final word with you? My daddy passed on it. I was sitting in a wooden chair near his bed, and he was flitting in an out of consciousness, he was emaciated, he was going, he wasn’t sleeping he was comaing, and I said, “You know how much I love and respect you, Daddy?” And he looked at me, his eyes glazed in morphine relief and he said. “You should go now, yes, go now, I wanna sleep.”
Not the last words he said to me but it seemed to sum up our relationship. I think he always felt I was a failure and he couldn’t even say goodbye right. I wanted to say something more, I wanted some form of benediction. It was evening, maybe 10pm, but Mom said goodbye as well and it was just Keisha and I, watching the news in silence, and she searched out my hand as we watched more horror stories, more terrors of the world, we just sat there and I could feel her in the room, like just two souls and this brainless rubbish coming out of the television and I felt lost and defeated although, really, I’ve never believed in success and failure, I just believed in happiness and sorrow. So we just sat there and I guess the problem was Daddy believed in success and failure and he felt I’d failed in a fundamental sense.
I didn’t say any of this of course but Keisha must have intuited it. “You’re wrong you know, he doesn’t judge you at all right now. He is just tired and scared and alone. So you have to stop thinking about it anymore because you aren’t going to get it.”
The next day I knocked on my big brother Keyshon’s door, he was 37 years old at the time, and he was sitting in his bed, the TV on, curtains drawn, I couldn’t see him except by the light of the TV and he looked spooky. We had been close enough as kids but gone such different ways. Drugs didn’t help him and rehab and medication took away even more from him. My oldest brother was married and living in Baltimore, it isn’t that he had given up on our family any more than I had, it is just life took him away and nothing brought him back. When I saw him at Dad’s funeral six months it would be the only time I’d have seen him in ten years. Or seen my nieces and nephews. He was a bus driver, a good provider, a good man. Who knows right? I wonder if he would make it to my funeral.
Keyshon didn’t wanna talk to me, I don’t know why. I saw no difference between the two of us. We were both losers and both losing, but I was at peace with whatever I was. Or at least as much at peace as I ever would be and Keyshon was lost in his sense of meaningless. The smell of pot, the drift of depression, the darkness. “This is bad, right?” I said, standing over him. We were both big guys but I felt as though I was a towering figure, maybe he did as well. Maybe he what invaded.
“What?” he said, not looking up.
“About Dad.” I replied. He said nothing and we both stood in the silence. I tried again. “How have you been, right?” That was a nervous tic of mine and I hope I forget it when I get to heaven. I throw in rights for no reason.
“Yeah,” he said. Still not looking up.
We must have had the least communicative family on earth, three boys and all of us introverts.
“I know it’s been a long time”, I said. “Remember going to see Run DMC at Madison Square Garden?” Still nothing. “I think back sometimes, I wish life had been better I truly do. I wish… maybe we couldn’t be different than what we were.”
“You’re okay, you’re in LA. Touring with Ahmed, and stuff. With bands. You made it.”
“I hate to disappointed you, Key, but I’m just a roadie… I’m nothing.”
Now he looked up at me, and I could feel his dark brooding eyes on me through the bedroom. “I felt as though I was the only one, I was the loser.”
“Nope, in fact none of us are losers. What does life want with us, right?”
More silence but I could see my brother straining to say something, to express the things his heart wanted him to and yet he just can’t get to it. It is beyond him. His dark skin couldn’t hide the bags under his eyes and his skin had some of the shape shiftiness of daddy’s skin like play dough. When his spole his voice was low yet firmer than it had been: “My brain feels cluttered with thoughts about what has happened and I can’t sort through them, I feel adrift in my brain and I keep reacting to the things around me, but it scares me. Not scares me. Maybe it makes me defensive, I just feel like inside this mess of a brain I have nowhere to hide my thoughts and so they rush at me and if I don’t turn them off I’ll drown.
“How can I believe in God with this brain God gave me, which can’t filter out all the noise? I hear voices, not in a weird voice, like my own voice speaking to me day after day after day, but I don’t want to hear it. How can it help me when all I want is silence? I don’t want life the way you maybe do, or Talal driving a bus, like it matters. How does it matter? I don’t want that. I want to be still before I drift away in time.
“Like, I wish I could rap about nothing, rap where the rhymes were all blank and the feelings all cross wired till they didn’t really exist at all and I want to talk and talk until the words are nothing but vibrations. My brain is this strange vibration, Eli. I want nothing.”
I wondered if that was what dad thought as well, and I wasn’t sure I didn’t agree with him. Keisha came back that evening and Mom, Keisha and I sat around the kitchen table sipping toxic whisky and cubes and we agreed we could do nothing about any of it. My Mom, who grew drunker and drunker, didn’t have any compassion left for Ahmad, or for me for that matter, watching dad dying took up all her time and energy. “He isn’t a pain or needy but he is so defeated, like a dog that’s just had a good whomping, he seems so finished and he doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t care that I loved him, he doesn’t cared that life is the same for all of us…”
“Not for you, Mom…” I interrupted…
“For me as well, we aren’t a real family, I don’t know what we are.” Keisha didn’t say anything, if she felt uncomfortable she didn’t show it at all, she just sat next to my mom, sipping, no, gulping her whiskey and leaving us to sift through the family debris.
“Do you even know who I am?” Mom asked, and it was like the last month of brewing was reaching a boil. “Or is the person I am… does it not matter? That’s what marriage did to me –I got lost in it and now all I have is….” Mom began to cry and cry, her face a smudge of pain, like an abstract painting her features seemed to fall out of focus. Although it sure wasn’t my strength, I went to comfort her, but she pushed me away. “Too late,” she said.
Oddly enough this has a happier conclusion. My dad died in mid-March , and Keisha and I came back to Sunnyside for the funeral. Daddy was buried at the local Mosque and later on that evening, when everyone had left there was just Key, my other brother Talal, his wife Janet, their eldest kid, Keisha and my mom, and the relief was palpable. For my Mom for sure, the past two years had been a slow drip torture, but also for the rest of us. My dad was just unhappy, there was no real reason for him to be unhappy, he had a lot of things many people would want, and within his own world, he worked for the post office, he was a successful civil servant with a good pension, and no blemishes, no drug addiction, no heartbreak, nothing so terrible in his life He was a black man really untouched by racism, he kept on skimming past the worst of it, he had three sons, no daughter true but big deal? Right? A woman who loved him, no drug addictions or alcoholism, no tragedies more than garden variety, his sister died in a car accident when she was in her early 20s, but Dad was 47 years old and ten years older than that when he lost his Mom.
Yet, he seemed deeply shallow. Dad always seemed to skim the darkness of his soul.
It affected all of us. His sorrow made us feel unloved.
And now with him gone, my Mom could move out of that perpetual cloud that hung over her. We sat around talking about the old days, making fun of my brothers hip hop stage, of dad’s dancing. Of our mythic history lost in time. I think we were glad he was gone and I wonder if my family will cry over my death or again, find relief in the loss. Hell, I’m only 40 years old? Not quite right at all.
Three months after we returned from the funeral, Keisha got the call that would end our lives. She was told the Stones would be recording in Cannes and wanted her to come over for a couple of weeks to add on backing vocals. Nobody had to tell us this was a big deal and also a big deal with no way for me to join her. She didn’t invite me and I didn’t go.
Eileen Shapiro: “Portfolio Of A Rockstar Journalist” With Philip Bailey Bringing Earth, Wind, And Fire
Jazz has always been my first love as a kid
some big country and Americana names
free for all has always been the idea behind EPR
The power-pop sensibilities of the Black Lips
Bey with a double header
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – October 1976 (Volume 8, Number 5)
the man who made the world a safe place for Richard Simmons.