My Friend Charlie: Real Life, Raw Rock & the Impossible Gulf In Between

My friend Charlie used to be a rock star, only I didn’t know him then. Maybe I interviewed him once, at WVUM – “the Voice of the University of Miami” – when college radio was the life force of punk rock, throbbing funk and other alternative forms of music and I was answering to the Administration-chapping Angel Dust.

Not that I didn’t know who he was, or why he mattered. If indeed I did interview him, and it’s possible, very possible in the blur of 8 or 9 different writing outlets where I freelanced, most likely we talked about making it burn, the blunt force of punk, the blue collar ethos being insurrected to create something both snide and liberating.            

Like I said, I’m not sure. But I do know he held a stage with indomitable swagger, guitar slung low, eyes raking the crowd, taking them in, assessing their weakness and seeking their reaction points. It was more than just the thrust of a brutal downstroke, the searing twist of an acidic lead guitar line, the husky bark of a man spent and still giving it all away, it was about the moment when the foment goes exponential, the pressure explodes in a million shards into a release and relief that leaves it all... right... there...            

Charlie Pickett could do that. “If This Is Love (Can I GetMy Money Back)” was as surly and taunting as it got. A lesser man would’ve played it for camp, Pickett – working in a stone yard, working a loader in the relentless Florida sun – knew how hard physical labor can be, and he brought that weight with him as the words burst vitriolic from his drawn lips.            

“If this is love, can I get my money back,
“I want to see the man in charge,” he seethed.            
“If this is love, I want my money back,            
“I want an honorable discharge...”

He wasn’t joking. If the Delta of Venus was the one thing that could abate the aching muscles and excruciating tedium, it wasn’t worth the tourniquet clamp of whatever comely vixen he’d pledged his virility to. Virility, it was implied by the sweating mass of average body toned by blue collar work, that was hard won and forged in very real ways.

Pickett wasn’t a pretty boy, wasn’t a poofter, wasn’t a preening punk proposition like those nancy boys on MTV who’d eventually inspire Mark Knopfler’s caustic “Money for Nothing.” No, he was a pock-mocked blond with good bone structure you wouldn’t notice in line at Wolfie Cohen’s all-night deli if you didn’t know who he was. Even then, limp and damp, he’d be easy to miss in his banged up boots and slack shirt tail.            

But strap on that guitar, and he was lionic. Yes, lionic: iconic like a lion.            

There was nothing that was coming between him and the back wall. He wasn’t gonna blink, sweat, flinch or falter. Like that heavy machinery he ran all day long, he was coming through, dozing you down in the process. It was... incredible.            

In a place where rock didn’t live, let alone leave, where Miami Sound Machine was big in Puerto Rico and South America and KC and his Sunshine Band were well-past shelf-life, Charlie Pickett pricked up the ears of Britain’s New Musical Express; he stunned Peter Buck into producing an album for Minneapolis’ indie cred temple TwinTone Records – and he exported the pile-driving, sand blasting blues-anchored garage squawk like it was cocaine headed for Studio 54.            

For a moment, it felt as if... Then midnight came, the second hand swept past 5, 10, 15 and there was no glass slipper, no golden Doc Martin, not even a second hand van idling at the back door to haul them back to Miami. Or rather the mockingly real Hollywood, Florida, where a life of back breaking work awaited.            

So another rock & roll dream runs out, another talented soldier in the realm of feedback and stun goes home. If not wounded, the ones who get so close to the sun go blind from the exposure – and assimilation is a rough prospect at best.            

And that was that. Like Fred Flintstone into the tar pits,Charlie Pickett was gone. Perhaps a waft or suggestion of his gritty undertow in the Del-Lords plain Jane rock combustion, X’s frenetic grind, maybe the Replacements’ reckless hurling. But Pickett had a nobility and dignity that came from all those hours with the clock punched and the honest work done; alas, he’d had his moment, lived it out – and disappeared.            

Well, they never disappear. Not really. Live at the Button!, Cowboy Junkie A Go Go and Route 33 followed me to California, rotten sonics and squalling buzz-guitars turned up too loud, flaring like electric razor wire in a tropical storm across the oppressive blanket of heat that defined the Santa Ana winds’ foreboding stillness. On those afternoons, when nothing was moving, that white noise would be the texture of the space around me – sprawled in shorts and a barely there tee across the mauve cotton couch waiting for inspiration or some pop star to call for an interview for YM orRockbill or The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.            

Real raw rock & roll was in rare supply just then, the most poufy hair’n’clothes-driven days of MTV’s fantasyscape of exoticism, leather, spandex and cars. The idea of strapping it on and making it happen was kinda like stalking unicorns or fairies: a notion, but nothing to actually do.            

So a Midwestern girl with a taste for getting drilled into the wall by my records, the most raucous part of the Stones, Thin Lizzy in rut, MC5’s shrapnel’n’combustion or Lou Reed at his crankiest, had nowhere to go, nothing to find. Except the past, the brazen jarring of the things I knew, the things punk in all their ramped up velocity didn’t have the slow pressure to make last.

Yes, the Dead Kennedys churned hard, the Ramones were amphetamined poppers, the Plasmatics offered a chain saw ploddery. Even the Sex Pistols, in all their spitting and sneering bellicosity, couldn’t make the impact last.            

Maybe the Eggs weren’t interested in catching that train, where there were no rules and no reasons to shut down. Maybe it’s ‘cause they really were outsiders, regular working class kids for whom the glitter was too effeminate, for whom the sloppiness was an affront to what they could do. And working class kids, especially of a certain era, took pride in the workmanship.            

Besides, they saw no reason to copy what already was. Pickett reached back, took a fistful of hardcore roots blues, brought in the same garage pop that Springsteen mined to Spectorian effect, looked to British bands and his own need to punch through the walls and those hands that would hold him down. 

There was nothing high-handed or –minded to his songs. Some captured the lower rungs of Miami: “Overtown” and overt redneckery; other short blasts of beat’n’lash took on a fraught, almost skeevy sexuality – where Seka and self-pleasure were as reasonable as the kind of rank girl who’d say “yes.” It was the squalid, breaking down, city in conflict reality that defined South Florida in the ‘80s – bristling with that same agitation beneath the surface. 

Just cause you don’t see’em, it doesn’t mean they don’t go away. The music lasts, endures, indeed marks you – and that’s what actually matters. I never gave up on rock & roll, especially the kind that would pummel me without too much required.            

Never as heavy as Motorhead or Metallica, it got the job done. No matter where, no matter how.  Music made for the sake of the grind, driven to release, rendered as a way to wring out every bit of frustration, disappointment and the weight of a world that doesn’t care about you. Workingman’s blues, indeed, only they weren’t blue, they were raging, snarling in the face of being overlooked and out of options.            

As long as there was feedback, cheap amps and a reason to punch the night, this music – delivered by a band playing for its life; sung in Pickett’s flat, affect-less drone that was equal parts rusty hinge and old creaky floor board -- existed solely to declare it’s here, and it won’t balk, buckle or run. When all you got’s a back to the wall, muscles that throb and a woman who’s more trouble than the sex is worth, that’s deliverance with a wicked backbeat.            

As is often the twist, a copy of Bloodshot’s compilation Bar Band Americanus arrived at my house in a plain brown wrapper. Two decades later, it was as visceral and as brutal a kick to the knee cap as it was when I was a kid. Only now -- enough miles for life to weigh me down and the bullshit wear me out, the songs had all the same ur ngency, all the snide asides of Saturday night at the corner of nowhere and dead end when you’re young and so alive.            

Smiling, I marveled that after everything, some delights remain as electric as if they’re fireworks just hitting the sky. When the rock is real, and pure, and ragged, it doesn’t flatten under hubris, bloat or years, instead it sizzles with a life-or-death intensity that’s compounded over the time.            

And don’t get me wrong: these sides still sounded pretty rough. It’s not the amped, ramped, compressed and jacked up re-mastering so much current music gets. But the primal force overwhelmed all, as I drove north to the Rock & Roll Capitol of the World Cleveland, Ohio, the place where I came to understand the torque and the shove that pushed rock music to create such a freewheeling discharge of all that weighs you down, exhilarating the same way pressing the gas into a curve can.

There is a communion between the road, the ramping up of velocity for a car or a cd, the merge of both and how rubber grabs the pavement and turns over. It will pull you from inertia, hurl you against the moment.  

I smiled. As Springsteen would say, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Just as you’re sure you’ve lost the faith or the thrill of a rhythm guitar slashed just so, an electric writhing against the tracks ... You’re sure you know too much to believe... You stumble, thinking Thomas’ side is a projection and the postman always rings twice...            

Just as suddenly, you’re driving too fast, pushing the curves and hitting Cincinnati an hour too early. The harder you go, the faster you fly.            

That was that. The miles fell away, and soon I was home.             

Funny thing about life, or rather my life. The converging and merging of lanes and airports, deadlines and stories, superstars and freaked out handlers, paths cross and fall away from all sorts of people. Somewhere out there, Charlie Pickett and I fell into each other. Not through a publicist setting up an interview, nor some “I can make it happen” handler looking for a poll position; most likely not even through Facebook’s “People You May Know” function... Maybe a mutual friend, possibly an email sent to many. But somehow we were having the occasional exchange without actual conversation.            

Spending time in South Florida, the land of Lilly Pulitzer and my best friend Kathie’s store C. Orrico, the merge was almost inevitable. Yet, passing through so many places – and never seeing many people – it wasn’t a mandate. More a leaf floating by my window: weightless, pretty, but something I’d never catch.            

There are those who have theories: we reach out to specters from our past, hoping to recapture who we were, reclaim what was lost or right whatever was wrong, truncated or broken. I’ve never been one of those. Though there’s a balmy warmth to what we remember, it’s about where we’re going, how life translates in here and now that matters.

And what kind of here and now could there be? A gentleman lawyer who hung up the all-night drives and sleeping on floors for an intellectual solidity, the music critic/songwriter/artist developer whose roots can be found dangling in the wind like some kind of untamed orchid?            

Charlie Pickett didn’t remember me, either, sitting on a stool at Hamburger Heaven, the long gone lunch spot on South County Road. Cheeseburgers before us, we talked about the days when 27 Birds roiled with bands, fans, alternative realities, beats like pistons and rockers hitting the stage every 55 minutes on the dime. We laughed about Johnny Depp and his band the Kidz, one more local denizen that was probably never gonna be more, the promoter Richard Shelter who wore combat boots in summer and embraced Black Flag and the Circle Jerks long before they mattered, as well as the long-lamented not even almosts the Eat, the Bobs, the Cichlids, so good and absolutely unable to connect to the larger picture.

We talked about where rock & roll takes you, where it leaves you, how it is a force almost greater than life itself. A student of the game, he asked about Rolling Stone, CREEM, theLA and New York Times, a host of other publications – and we laughed about how important some of those magazines could be.            

And then he paid the check, and we hugged, and that was that. I’d send him my essays, seemingly always celebrating someone who had died. He’d respond thoughtfully, showing both compassion for my loss and insight into the human spirit that I’d captured.            

And that was that, too.

Though when I’d go to South Florida, sometimes we’d have another lunch, somewhere unconventional, yet always tangential to my life. The conversations would expand to talk of life as a dad, as a lawyer, as a husband and as a rocker who really didn’t rock the way people expect. Me, I’d talk about Artist Development, which isn’t branding, tell stories about how the music is realized in the humanity and the battering of shoddy reporting oversimplifying to where it misrepresented the real essence of the story. Me, being me, I’d tell funny stories about the adventures of working with big stars – and he’d laugh, then counter with the reality of a little band on a hardcore indie with a player who’d need to cop.            

Over time, I started spilling secrets like a toppled glass of cote du rhone, stories going everywhere, staining the encounter and making me think about where I’d been. Funny how talking to the ones removed can sometimes bring you into a deeper focus of your own life.            

Over time, Charlie Pickett started running songs by me. Or rather the tracks, looking for words. I would push back, trying to know his heart, his need to express.

Unlike anything I normally write, yet somehow throbbingly alive: those few chunks of lyric, essences of experience, insight, feelings. Things that were heavy, bore down, lumbered. Things that captured his (other)world – the places that’re stripped to the bone, the shard of truth that cuts through it all.

Ironic. My friends met Mr. Pickett and his exotic black dahlia of a wife at a dinner party. They found him charming, evolved, settled, elegant. Every one of them had a hard time believing this was the sneering, stolid punk force that once held stages with that jarring blues slam’nbam.

“Really? I just can’t believe it,” said one of the other C. Orricos, dumbfounded.           
The publisher of The Palm Beach Daily News concurred, “But he was so lovely – and that music was so, well,’re the critic.”            

And it’s true. The man they beheld was cultured, erudite, president of his law review, something undertaken well-past rock prime and certainly far enough into adulthood to scent with a bit of desperation.            

But that’s the thing about the fury of rock & roll: it fires you in ways other things can’t. Not revenge, not hate, not rage. When you rock from the core, you push in a way that is unassailable, you apply yourself like there’s no other option.            

Which is the funniest thing about my friend Charlie. He outran the obvious. Rather than a burned out cliche, one more bitter shoulda coulda woulda, he took that blunt force and transformed himself. Even more importantly, he never let go.            

See, there are plenty of wanna be and almost weres who find a place on the fringe and exhale their how big they were, polishing the done wrongs and bad breaks to a blinding glow – casting that brightness in a way that you can’t see their part in it.            

Charlie Pickkett was probably too primitive and raw to be a glossed over MTV commodity. That purity made REM’s guitar swain Pete Buck weak in the knees, producing a Picket & the MC3 collection for Twin/Tone at the height of the Athens’ band’s ascendance.           

Pickett wasn’t gonna buckle or fold or compromise. He was gonna rock out, hard, loud, proud and unrepentant. And when it didn’t work, he was gonna live his life the same way: not a shadow of what wasn’t, trying to convince everyone how it ought to have been.            

That swagger is tempered by the knowing how much, how hard he can. When you do, you don’t need to flex or throw down. You can talk quiet, meet peoples’ eyes without challenge, find your way without being obtrusive.           

I had a friend like Pickett once, who told me there wasn’t a three-legged dog I couldn’t bring home. Surely I understand the regional forces of music – Motown’s glorious rocker steeped in soul Stewart Francke, Pittsburgh’s silken rock poet Bill Deasy, Cleveland’s compass of the chambers of the heart Alex Bevan – but that doesn’t mean it’s my raison d’etre.            

Charlie Pickett was the last friend I needed. At least like that: a reclaimed punk with a fire in the belly, a life that was classically upwardly middle class America and a career to be respected. Too straight and too loud, and yet...

Sitting in a recording studio off a dead end street in a warehouse that was more storage unit than middle business, I watch him lay himself against the gnashing guitar parts again and again. Searching to find the scan beyond the blues, beyond the thrum for a song that tells men the real about how it goes... about checking macho posturing at the door, but taking control, being in charge, being the man, he’s looking for the hard delivery.            

I don’t wanna smile, because that tweaks the hoist. But I almost can’t help myself to hear someone willing to be that real, to enjoinder an actual manly response in a world of reductive roles that negate any real connection between the sexes. Because in the end, the most erotic zone is between your ears, and the real glory hole is what you take in aurally.            

Charlie Pickett has nothing to prove. He’s got no reason to do this beyond the surge of a song picking up steam, then pushing back hard. It’s not about what was, or could be; not about prancing around onstage as the locals cheer – remembering their own better days. 

No, what he does – beyond the court arguments and dry as parched wood briefs – is the essence of rock & roll for no reason beyond its own guts and glory. Even now, in an odd way, it’s about the girls... But not just getting them, keeping them: pleasuring them, bringing them to their knees the way a real honest to god king bee would.

Not that he’s on the hunt or the prowl... well, not for anything except the axis rock truly turns on. Pushing harder, throwing himself over the railing again and again, the punch of the line eludes him, but he keeps coming. Not for David Fricke, or Paul Westerberg or even his own ego, but for the reasons rock, when it’s right, matters.

Having spent too many years listening to record company people throw tired marketing plays at music they don’t understand, artists genuflecting to a marketplace that’s never been excavated or considered on a human basis, managers wanting to max the moment at 15-20 percent, I laugh. Raised on WMMS during its glory days, I know the difference – and just cause nobody else dares, that doesn’t mean I don’t know it when I see it.

Standing before me in a denim shirt, trying to find the emphasis point in the line, Charlie Pickett keeps hitting the words and pauses like baseballs at milk bottles lined up at the fair. Hard, precise, wild, a jumble of conflict with a singular purpose.

This isn’t for radio, or a tour, or even a big record release party. Rock & roll is his: a release and a church of some higher fire. Sometimes faith is its own reward; sometimes it’s shared amongst the true believers. And when you believe, it’s not the numbers that matter – only the kick inside.

But don’t tell that to the fancy people in the glass building where he practices the law and parses the legality of things we’ll never ever need to know. They’re sitting 19 floors above the Intercoastal, safe in a cocoon of neat, tidy privilege. It’s safe and warm and elevated, everything so many people want.

Given that, they don’t need to know about the glorious subversive nature of Charlie Pickett. That their star lawyer has a rock side isn’t relevant; they get that –without tremor -- when he clamps down in court, and they don’t even know why.

Sitting here in this unfinished wood paneled control room, maybe the why doesn’t matter, either. Knowing the thrust as it plunges in, stabbing the dead places and releasing the wild doesn’t require cognition – only surrender.

Surrender is easy when the guitars are loud, the beer’s cold and the singer’s howling: all you gotta do is let go. It may take a minute, a song, maybe two; but when you hit it full-tilt and manage the rise and the fall, it’s intevitable. In the court, on the stage, it’s all the same when the fire remains.