Who the f is Sir Walter Raleigh

You know, I think it’s best to remember people when they’re at their best, not as they are at the end: struggling to breathe, to look lively and motivated, like they don’t want to live anymore. He had so much life in him, my father exclaimed, upon hearing the news of Jason. Jason, my friend of over thirty years, passed away last Saturday morning after collapsing into a diabetic coma. He was not at his best, it’s fair to say. He had a habit of not returning calls, of ignoring texts for extended stretches, ghosting me; now he is really ghosting me. He may have wanted it that way, or at least he may have longed for a state in which he might watch others who could no longer watch him. See, he’s no longer on show, displaying his inimitable wit, or his elastic, toothy smile; his shining blues eyes below arched, Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Actually, if watching and listening or reading, he’d frown at this point, complain that he more closely resembled one of his idols, David Bowie (sans the bad teeth), than the guy who threw an axe at a door in that film about the Stephen King novel.

             Jason liked books more than he did movies, even great movies. He also preferred science over religion, though he’d given the latter a good, loving shot, I think, largely because he once met and fell in love with Monica, an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike with an air of Snow White whose sweet nature he found irresistible if not exactly like-minded. He remembered lyrics more than he did melodies; liked football more than soccer, kicking and punching more than wrestling or throwing balls; dogs more than cats, disliked rapists more than murderers, liked pizza more than steak, hard liquor more than beer (okay, not by much), esoteric words, plays upon words more than simply dirty ones; inside versus shared jokes, heroes more than lovers, brunettes more than blondes. To my surprise, he liked me more than he did his other friends. At first, it wasn’t flattering. Despite being two years my junior, Jay affected a superior, big brotherly air from the outset, sort of adopting me when it seemed to him that I was dour and brooding, if smart and therefore worthy of his interest. During our shared twenties, conversations with Jason were dizzying, sometimes marathon efforts, reflecting an array of interests and desires—more his than mine, though I often thought him a dilletante, too easily bored. Compared to him, I was a bamtamweight intellect, but it seemed I was a useful ear and competent foil, managing to spar with him evenly when we bantered. Our back and forth jabs would have few witnesses over the years, but those who did observe our private dialect tended to withdraw, feeling like third wheels. The odd woman or two got in the way of this, which elicited jealousy on occasion, mine and his. Some of these women fell away, moved on in life. The ones that stuck around knew to not devise so-called double dates very often. The result was a friendship that lacked an adjoining circle; a bond and rapport that was too difficult to share with others.

             A memory from our early days captures the essence of us, maybe. When he was younger especially, Jay was insomniac, which was convenient as it meant that I could come over to his house at any time of night, which likewise suited my then nocturnal habits. He lived with his father and older brother, who seemed to keep similar hours, on a hill with a driveway and walking path that speared up toward a doorway that would often be left wide open, as if inviting the neighborhood to enter. This was not friendliness but rather inattention and apathy. I recall one of the first times I gingerly crossed the threshold to their home. Jay had paged me and directed me over, after which I appeared in minutes and stepped inside. I saw a light down a hallway of an otherwise dark residence and heard the soft hum of a television. From above, the silhouetted figure of Bart, Jay’s brother, appeared half-dressed and holding a rifle in his right arm. “Who is that?” he asked with flat menace before adding, “Oh, hey Graeme” with only slightly more warmth. “I dunno” he said when I asked after Jay’s whereabouts. He might not even be home, he suggested. I got it. This was a decidedly femaleless home in which independence and granted space reigned and so no one knew where anyone else was at.

             I ventured down the hallway, heading toward the light, half-thinking this was the politer choice but knowing it was wrong. Jason didn’t really watch television. His father did—incessantly, in fact. Therefore, it was him that I found amid the glowing light, couched in an armchair, watching a military documentary on the history channel. He didn’t seem to know where his younger son was either, but he didn’t seem to mind my sticking around regardless. Actually, had I asked a question about the documentary or else just stuck around for a further thirty seconds, I’d have gotten an impromptu lecture on the uses of the Sherman tank during World War II. Like Bart, Jason’s dad permitted my heading upstairs, and for a moment he seemed to glance in its direction as if contemplating an unprecedented curiosity.

             When I got to Jay’s room I nudged my way in, not bothering to knock because a) Jason usually didn’t answer, and b) he seemed to not care what anyone would see anyway. Once inside, I saw him in the corner of the space smoking, bathed in black light and sat in a quasi lotus position, appearing to commune with something unseen. He softly invited me forward, speaking quietly as if the onus would be upon me to approach him and join his rumination. Entering his thought-in-progress, I gleaned that he’d been listening to a collection of songs over and over again. The current selection was by The Cure, the notoriously morose eighties band whose leader, Robert Smith, had essentialized gothic depression for a generation of listeners alongside performers like Morrissey, who wasn’t on Jason’s playlist. Another song in the mix was “No One Lives Forever”, a mischievous pop ditty by the contemporaneous Oingo Boingo. With his own precise diction and versatile expression, Jay could easily mimic that group’s lead singer, a leeringly clownish Danny Elfman. Then came a Beatles song. “I’m so tired”, by John Lennon, featuring a second verse that sent Jay into peels of delight. “That’s so awesome!” he enthused, regarding one line in a stanza: “And curse the walls to rally, they’re such stupid gits”. Even if he wasn’t quite sure of the second clause, he baritoned it with conviction, this not being the first time he’d ape British slang with glee. But it was the first part that truly stirred him, capturing the hallucinogenic ethos that was guiding Jason’s feverish mind. Yes, we must bring to life the inanimate…rally the walls, and so on. Had I been more sensitive and less pedantic I might have refrained from bursting Jay’s bubble. “It’s not curse the walls to rally”, I said primly. “It’s curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid git!”.

             Jay looked at me blankly. Who the fuck is Sir Walter Raleigh, his eyes asked? “Sir Walter Raleigh”, I repeated, undeterred. “He either invented the cigarette or first brought tobacco back to England—something like that”. Cigarette. “See, it’s in the previous line”, I said, like that was proof of my argument. It took another 4-5 repetitions of the song before Jay begrudgingly admitted that he might be wrong about the lyric. Still, it doesn’t matter, he concluded. His version of the lyric was better regardless—John Lennon be damned.

             Not one to accept things simply for the way they are: that was Jason Stephens. In thinking of him now, I conjure another band and one-time singer, plus a song that was close to both of our hearts. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a two-part epic from Pink Floyd’s 1975 album (yeah, I had to mention the date, didn’t I Jay?), features melancholic lyrics of tribute for the group’s original singer/songwriter, the mentally wayward yet beautifully-minded Syd Barrett. Beyond words about reaching for life’s secret too soon, the music ebbs and flows, soaring with classic rock guitar one moment, then sliding into eloquent diminuendo the next. My favorite passage is the last section in which a drifting synthesizer floats a final melody towards the piece’s end. Give it a listen. Actually, you might summon it right now from Spotify or whatever, let it serenade you as you read my last few lines on this matter. Pay attention to the last minute of part two in particular. The soft strains wind down the song, sounding like a ghosting soul leaving the stage, and as we listen to the last few bars, we dreamily flatline along with the music, finding rest at the end of our collective breath.

             *Rest in peace my friend. You’ve broken my heart, and you will be missed and unforgotten.

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