A few days ago I received an email from a guy I don't know, the subject line said Make Way For The Handicapped, which happens to be a song from my album, Beloved Stranger (Populuxe Records 2008). The email said this:
Wow! I was trying to find MWFTH on youtube by my former band, the Mumbletypegs, when I came across your video. FYI, I'm not seeking money. I'm just very happy to hear someone covering one of our songs, and a person of your stature, no less. Its like the time a kid from Poland got our album. -Rush Riddle
...I was surprised and flummoxed. What did this mean? So I googled the band and found this link:
Wow!... I wrote back to the guy that emailed me:
Hi Rush, Wow cool to get your email. And found your version on YouTube. Are you the guy singing the song? There's a real story to this tune and if you are him you know the tale. Let me know if you're the elusive "Alex", or if you know, how I can be in touch with him..
all the best, cindy lee berryhill
* * *
Sometimes a story winds throughout your life that is so compelling, it keeps retelling itself, making installments over the long-haul, embroiling you in it's wild weave in the most inexplicable ways. Sometimes it's a story about good stuff, sometimes it's a series of bad events, usually it's a combination of both. This story in addition to being those things is, peculiar.
In the early 1980s I was living just off of Hollywood Blvd. with a couple I'd met in the Music Exchange Newspaper classifieds, when I was hunting for band members. I wanted to start a rock band and call it The Stoopids and play at the clubs around LA.
They, Jane and John, had just arrived from Chicago and had a dingy studio apartment, with a lot of cockroaches and a tiny bathroom. John the 23 year old guitarist and I hit it off musically and we decided to join forces, I wrote the songs, sang and played rhythm and he was great at coming up with classic George Harrison-like rock riffs. His girlfriend was a 45 year old greying hippy, that always wore the same bedraggled bag-dress, but she was really nice, supportive of John and thought I was really talented. So she became our "manager".
Before I moved in with them I was staying in a room in a mini mansion in Bel Aire (the really ritzy part of Beverly Hills), exactly next door to the Beverly Hillbillies mansion. The owner was a wealthy, divorced, financier that had lots of photos of himself and Hugh Hefner. This guy would bring a new bunny-type-girl home every weekend. "Cindy this is Bambii, Bambii this is Cindy". I made this guys orange juice every week day and cleaned his bedroom in exchange for staying at this place (which was a downstairs servants-like quarters). I never slept with him nor spoke more than two sentences to him. It was usually just "Cindy this is Cookie, Cookie this is Cindy"or, "Thanks for the orange juice".
This whole set up would have been a real laugh at the time, but I was depressive from living off of cheap, bad-food, like donuts, Arby's roast beef sandwiches and milk shakes...I think that list pretty much informed my entire diet. A doctor said to me at the time, "are you trying to look malnourished?" and I said "yeh, I'm in a punk rock band and you have to look pretty messed up". I was 19, what did I know.
I got sick of living in the anonymous, luxurious sex-hermitage, servant girl quarters and moved across town, in with Jane and John. Camping out on the floor behind their fold out couch/bed. It was messed up but pretty great, getting 3 square meals a day from Jane. I paid her 20 dollars each week for food, money I made working as a shoe shine girl in Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. Among others, I shined Jack Lemons shoes, Herb Alperts and Leroy Neiman's, a sports illustrator who made lots of drawings of me shining shoes
John, the guitar player, and I figured out a few songs and then started looking for band members. The first bass player of the Stoopids was Glen, he lived with his navy physicist dad in a house in El Segundo and we'd practice in their garage. Glen was gay and we got along great, he really had a knack for audacity and music and his dad thought I was a genius for some reason.
Then one day our manager Jane got a call from Glen's navy-issue-glasses-wearing-physicist dad, Glen had thrown his bass against the wall and he wouldn't be playing with the Stoopids anymore. He'd had a psychotic break and we had to look for a new bass player.
Almost ten years later Glen called me and explained what really happened. He said he'd been a woman trapped in a mans body and finally got the go ahead to surgically change his sex from male to female. He was super nice as a woman, though quite large. He said I hope you don't mind but I took your name Cynthia as my middle name. It was an honor. I wrote a tribute song for her many years later called Diane, and it's on my album Straight Outta Marysville.
So, Stoopids guitarist John, and I went back to looking for a bassist. We found a guy living in the San Fernando valley, with his mom as I recall, who called himself Alex M. Alex was an extremely talented songwriter. He had an incredible knack for saying inane things that sounded masterful and brilliant. He had one tune that went "I got a neutral shade army jacket on I got a spray can and crumbling wall to lean on". He told me it was inspired by the closing of LA's great and early punk rock venue The Masque.
Alex scared me, so I thought he must be a real punk. He'd say things to get a reaction out of me like: I was at a party last night and they were passing around a jar of human brains and drinking water out of it. He would tell me I'd better toughen up if I wanted to be a real punk. And I did.
One time Alex and I crashed a punk party. I nervously stayed in the main room but Alex careened around the whole place acting like a real fuck up. After a few minutes he ran back over to me with a hand over his eye, saying ..We got to get out of here, I just got punched in the eye by John Doe from X. I thought it was great. We split with him kicking over trash cans on the way out.
One day Alex brought in a new song, Make Way For The Handicapped and I loved it. It was everything I liked about the Ramones and even with a little bit of Talking Heads mixed in. He made me a cassette tape of himself singing his songs over a plodding bass, I'd listen to that cassette over and over laughing my head off and marveling at his musical wit.
One day after practice I drove him to his moms house and we had a talk out front in my car, a 1976 Maverick Grabber. Max confessed he had a crush on me and wanted to be a boyfriend/girlfriend thing. I talked to him a long time explaining how I wanted to be platonic friends and band mates and he seemed to handle it well.
A few days later the Stoopids had a band practice and Alex M showed up kinda drunk and with a guy friend. It was a horrible night, we realized Alex was too messed up to play bass and took a break.
Then Alex needed to talk some more about the girlfriend idea and I told him I thought we'd straightened that out. He was upset and ran off to the bathroom, when he came out he joined John and Jane and drummer Terry Cloth and I at the kitchen table. Acting nonchalant he put his arm under his chin and asked about the next practice date, with blood running down his arm. He'd cut his wrist.
* * *
Do you ever get that feeling like you've messed up someones life. If they hadn't met you maybe they would have faired better. It's a child like concept. Sometimes this feeling happens when something bad happens to a family member or a friend when you're a kid, you're the survivor and you're left wondering if you had something to do with their bad luck.
My mom died when I was eight. It wasn't anyones fault. She had a rare form of cancer, they operated and she didn't wake up. I don't remember feeling like it was my fault. As a kid I actually didn't even know what happened to her, she just left the house one day, (a bad day where I'd been pestering her and grandma had to yell at me to leave her alone) and never came back. No one said why, just that she had died.
Kids can get these weird, wrong ideas that if they'd just been a little better behaved they may have changed the winds of fate. Those feelings can carry on into adulthood too. When my husband Paul had a brain injury in 1995, because of riding a bike recklessly down a killer hill with no helmet, I felt somehow that it'd been my fault. If he hadn't moved to Encinitas to be with me and had stayed in Glen Ellen with his old friends and family this would never have happened.
You see how it works. You know it's not right thinking. But it's what happens when you try to make sense of a senseless happening. Somehow, you feel like if you'd been more in control of the situation, you could have prevented it from happening. The ultimate pretend game of control and it's a losing proposition.
* * *
Seeing that blood dripping down Alex M's arm made me feel faint, I called manager Jane into the kitchen. She told me to calm down. She'd seen this sort of thing before, when she was a girlfriend and groupie to the 1960s UK band Sad Cafe (she talked about them endlessly). She explained there wasn't enough blood to make it a real suicide.
No one said anything about it to Alex M. He put his arm back in his sleeve and said he'd see everyone at the next rehearsal then he took off with his friend. A few days later we'd heard that he got into a car accident on purpose on Freeway 101 with himself and his friend getting concussions. And he broke his arm so he couldn't play bass.
I couldn't hack it anymore. I quit and split LA, moving back to the little town of Ramona and in with my parents. I'd left my guitar at Jane and John's place and when I called and asked them about it a month later they said the Jamaican pot dealer down the hall had taken it, then his place got busted and the cops tore the guitar apart. Probably Jane and John took the guitar to a pawn broker.
Everybody limped away from that fucking band. It took years to get myself out of that black hole. A messed up time I never have to go back to. But I made peace with it long ago and have written about it many times. Here are some of the songs: Jane and John, Diane (Straight Outta Marysville). The Heat, Whatever Works (Who's Gonna Save The World).
And of course Make Way For The Handicapped which is me re figuring, trying to remember Alex M's song and since I couldn't, I rewrote it. (In fact, he has co-songwriting credit on the cd sleeve and copyright). Now after all these years, and thanks to Rush's recent email, I can listen to Alex's version and the sound of his voice and bass brings the past flooding back.
Rush Riddle who's film Averageman, is coming out this year, sent me an answer to my query about Alex saying:
No, I'm not "Alex", but he was in our band! He split for up-north ages ago and last I talked to him...said he was getting a sex change!, and was now "Alexis".