Friday, December 15, 2006

"BIRDMAN: A MEMOIR" by Lo Galluccio

Lo Galluccio
2 Clinton Street, Apt. 8
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 876-4534

Lo Galluccio is a poet/vocalist and the poetry editor for "The Alewife" a monthly newspaper in Camridge, Mass. Her most recent poetry collection is titled "Hot Rain" ( Ibbetson Street Press)

BIRDMAN: A memoir

“You were an emperor with a sword who looked wounded
like a birdman after a storm. Your tongue like a garter snake enchants me…”
Lo song lyric

I wore an army jacket with brass buttons, double-breasted and green and walked around the night in sunglasses. Gloss on night: darkness over darkness to see the night, to be alone. Taking the A train, I went up to Harlem one day to find Jean Michel Basquiat’s paintings. I’d run into blonde-haired and waifish Billy Martin (of Martin, Medeski and Wood) at the MoMA and for some reason, he also loved Basquiat. I guess part of that was Basquiat’s association with John Lurie, Bandleader of the Lounge Lizards, which Martin was a drummer for. John ran with Basquiat in their dope days, dope days that killed poor Jean Michel, that Lurie and others recovered from.

In a small Harlem museum, there was a ring of Crown King paintings, black with silver and gold and colored chalk. Basquiat invented his cartoon icons of America as an outsider. And I was feeling this in myself. I remember the exercise of taking the subway up there and staring for hours at the paintings to memorize them. To switch my right brain on and open up my imagination synapses. My soul trembled with delight and said yes to the inverse narcissism, the codes, the blackness and the bones of the paintings.

He became my favorite post-modern painter. He began to open up my eyes. Why were they shut tight? And why did I feel blinded? This I will come to.

Maybe the reason I called Tronzo Birdman, was the look he had on the Queen of all Ears CD, the Lounge Lizards record. You see him --bald with squint bright eyes – wise bright eyes and his funny bird nose at the camera. And that was the creature of a man who had mesmerized me with his anger and his guitar’s heavenly blues oratorios. He was my former lover and boyfriend, Tronzo. Most people downtown then in New York knew the Lounge Lizards was the hip white Duke Ellington orchestra of our day. Or Count Basie to the Jazz Passengers’ Duke. Still Birdman and Lurie were rivals of a kind. Tronzo was happy for the gig but he always found Lurie to be egotistical and too much a showman. I loved them both, though Tronzo would later say I was more like John because I had stage-presence, was the singer.

The reason I needed to re-configure my mind’s eye was because I’d been pink-slipped and put in a psychiatric ward by a man named Dr. Dollar a month or so before that. Dr. Dollar (real name) was a Southern psychiatrist to whom I’d been referred by several friends who thought I needed medication for my “depression.” After the Birdman cast me out I was punished for a suicide attempt in a way that forever changed my life. And this is a story about that, and about how grief will run it’s course. Larry explained to me that “pathology” means, in Greek, “the logic of grief,” not mental illness. Larry Joseph was my mentor back then; a brilliant law school professor who wrote a book called, “Shouting at No One.” Here in America we still pathologize our imbalances and emotions. I learned a harsh lesson that by trying to take my own life, it became the property of others who could lock me up. Lock me up away from the source of my suffering, but not heal it with deeper understanding or joy. No, it was yoga and the piano and winter and mysticism and love that do that…or almost do.

My father, Tony Galluccio, died when I was 15. A child of grief and unclear about real world machineries, psychiatries, confineries – after refusing pain medication for my busted neck, I took those same pain pills to kill me. And I fell asleep like a dream of dying, not a massive overdose or bloodletting like the Godfather’s failed lieutenant. The kitchen window in my small studio was covered up. And after swallowing 6-7 Naprocyns, I turned on the oven and fell asleep. I woke up an hour or so later, feeling queasy. And I knew I wanted to live, that it had been a childish attempt to erase my life, under the shame of losing his love, which had been so great. The Birdman, that is.

Let me tell you something more about the Birdman. He could play his guitar like a laser beam of violet blues light. He’d internalized the blues of the early 1900’s like John Lee Hooker or Blind Lemon. He had the ego of Santana or Hendrix. But he’d boozed when he first came to New York City and blown up at bandleaders and got into mighty trouble despite his mighty talent. The first night we made love together…it was a slow fade into dawn with him sitting behind me like a birch tree, his arms coming around me as we walked ceremoniously to the bed. Like a rocking horse he took me. He hadn’t been with a woman for awhile. It hurt me a little and I also loved his taking possession of me physically with ecstasy. The next morning we sat in his little kitchen in the E. Village and he wept. He wept and I knelt down before him. He said to me it was because of all the guys he’d lost to booze in Times Square. He couldn’t believe he was still alive and they were all gone. I was amazed at this display of sorrow, the intensity of the grief.
Already, I’d played my song, “Queen of Mars” for him, in rough form, and I’d already gone to dinner on India Row with him on Thanksgiving, both of us apart from our families. I felt like he was my guide, in love and in art. There I was in a cream-colored trenchcoat, looking like a French movie actress, working as a secretary when we first met on the Upper East Side. We were both staying with friends until we found places downtown, within a few blocks of each other. So when he cried and I thought to myself, “Oh, no, Oh, yes,” What do I do about this man? I either run now and keep going…or I say, I’m here for you and we’re together. Later I would write a poem about the little fisherman who would come into his head and ride the ocean of the tears he cried. It was called, “The color of January.” That day, I walked away, down 6th Street, knowing love, and knowing too, that even more than our damage and desire was the music. The music was what I wanted.

“Your eye a scar, slants bird toward me winging in.
And the corner of your eye…became a bird.
And the corner of your eye…became a bird.” Birthday, a song, Galluccio/Tronzo

It was at a Lounge Lizards’s concert. It was John Lurie, the actor and sax-man who always reminded me of an outfielder, with his stance and Roman God’s profile. It was my dream of a bomb going off – the color orange. It was another dream. Later I would look back and say, “Why didn’t I follow the message of the dream?” The only orange in my apartment was Tronzo’s amplifier, and the bomb exploding was him. That was what my psyche was warning me about. So, why not avert catastrophe?

I saw Lurie on stage and Tronzo was playing in the band. We’d been together for a year and collaborated on many songs. Our band, “FishPistol” delighted audiences in downtown clubs. I was Lucy to his Ricky. I was also just myself. When the Birdman took me home that night, angry I’d shown up at the wrong show time, and on his way to Europe with his trio, he snared me. In that apartment on 6th Street that reminded me of Amsterdam, where we’d written “Creamsplit” and “Birthday” together and I’d woken up early and gotten to Arrow Shirts to earn my living, Tronzo threatened to strangle me to death. See-- when you say Tronzo, it could be a Japanese gangster also. But it was also the Birdman who exiled me at 3:00 a.m. into a dark New York night. His plane to Europe cut through the sky and my stomach turned the next day when I felt my heart leave the planet Earth.

About a month later, after that suicide attempt, I woke up and threw up and felt okay. I was not okay about losing the love of my life. I was okay about death not eclipsing me. I was okay that fate had kept me alive. What really happened was this:

Instead of showing up for an appointment with a shrink at St. Vincent’s I called and told Dr. Dollar the truth. The hospital scared me. He called the police and five of them showed up at my door to take me to the psychiatric emergency room. It was a two-week incarceration in a locked psychiatric unit with idiot doctors and a bunch of poor trapped inner-city adolescents. The guard, when I’d signed in under coercion, said to me, actually said to me, “It’s like walking onto the moon, huh?” Too hurt and terrorized to speak, I didn’t say, “No kind of moon, I’ve ever seen.” My roommate was a girl named Cecilia. She talked and talked about her adoration for Barbara Streisand. The first night inside, I stuck my fingers in my ears to block her out. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours because I was afraid of what it would do to my mind’s eye. A tall man with white hair arrived on the ward who smelled of books and patchouli. I trusted him. He said to me that his wife had been an ex-model who couldn’t take aging so took 60 seconals and turned purple on her side of the bed. He was so depressed, he was having shock treatments. Cecilia had had them since she was younger. She painted. I grew to like her. It was a wild wild ride, a grim story. However, what finally turned things around was a fifteen-year old Latin girl named Danae. She had been walking around silently with her hands pinned to her thighs. She has been there for months. One night I watched Danae pick up a framed print off the main corridor –and there really was only a long one and a shortish one in an L-shaped ward—and smashed it on the ground. And she started screaming. “I’m too young to be in here. Let me outta here. I’m an artist and this just messes me up.” That’s what she yelled over and over to the nurse’s very uncomfortable astonishment. This statue of a girl, had completely flipped over into rage and a voice. It was revolutionary music to my ears. The next day she was released to her parents. Soon after, so was I. Not before I watched Cecilia straightjacketed; not before I was threatened with brain scans because they thought I wasn’t thinking “clearly” when I questioned their methods.

Then I wrote “Bright Star/Shot Horse”

"You take me down a corridor where dreams turn into television.
The color of your potions won’t replace the color of my visions.
You ask me do I hear voices. I hear voices like the sea.
You want me to take my trilophon, I drink my asylum tea.
The color’s red in my museum, it won’t fade in your cure for me…”

I didn’t want the Birdman to know I was in there. He found out anyway.
When I got out, the first night out on the town, I caught a cab with John Lurie. Think I had on the blue-striped shirt Tronzo had given me and some purple bell-bottoms with sneakers. When I told Lurie what happened, he said, “Sweetheart, you’re much braver than I am, trying to kill yourself.” “I could never do that.” I told him all the kids in the unit said, “mad this” and “mad that.” This was the same Lurie who plays it cool in the movie, Stranger than Paradise. He’s an immigrant who knew how to gamble and travel and bide his time til something better happened, free in America. That was the John Lurie with the penetrating eyes and the off-hand remarks and the temper flares just shy of real violence. Once I looked for work in stores in Soho with giraffes in them because he also reminded me of a giraffe.

So Lurie might have “killed” the Birdman for me. He carried me upstairs to his loft and I had on a 1950’s dress from a tour of Greece. He said he did that with all the girls. I laughed. And then that night, another dream, interrupted the action. Before we made love, I dreamt of Tronzo, my Birdman. It was a simple dream but we were together in bed holding hands. I was startled and guilt-ridden and knew he still had a spell over my soul. And I lost Lurie too for awhile. I lost Lurie forever until something very strange happened when I made my own first record. It had a queen in it too. And she was my double. The CD was called, Being Visited and on the front cover I was Queen of Mars, a song that almost healed me for good. Because the song was written in code about my father also. And Queen of Mars was the tarot card on the wall, maybe Queen of all Ears, and she was me. Long pink hair, and sharp teeth. She used men and was tricked by them, “my twin, my nemesis, Queen of Mars.” And there it was, the music given by those slide-guitar hands, come back to me. Like Ikkyu’s bird. A bird of paradise. Stranger, New York, than paradise. Birdman, John Lurie. -- you go to my head like champagne. Danae -- your bravery kept my heart from shattering. I was changed, but my soul remained.

Lo Galluccio

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:09 PM

    lo's writing is both brave and courageous. it is not only her story but the story of other young women who fall fall fall in love and then fall after the love is gone. she presents us with a glimpse into the breakdown caused by grief. a good short story that deserves to be read by a wide audience.
    irene koronas