I was an outcast in high school. I was lucky to begin with, obscenely lucky, in that I was going to a private boarding school in New Hampshire, and around me were the glamorous and sometimes brilliant sons and daughters of some of the wealthier families in the country; my parents were paying much of what they had to insure that I got a really excellent secondary school education, and this is a sacrifice—the education part of it—that they should be commended for. And yet I was an outcast.
What did it mean to be this particular kind of outcast? I guess I was not fast with the lines, and I was going through an ugly patch, physically speaking, that lasted most of my teen years, and I insisted on trying to grow my hair out when it would have looked better short, and no girl would have me, really, and no boys either, and for most of those years I liked music that other people found bombastic (I was listening to Yes and Jethro Tull when around me most everyone was listening to the Grateful Dead and Little Feat), and I was really interested in my classwork, especially my work in the English Department, and I spent much of my spare time reading, at least the time in which I wasn’t trying to figure out ways to get and drink alcohol or take various other intoxicants. I was not, I should add, terribly good at any sport, although I gave soccer a good try.
In public school, which I’d been in until the 9th grade (unlike many of my prep school brethren who’d been private most of their lives), I’d been in physical danger occasionally. Maybe danger is too strong a word. I felt threatened sometimes. People who didn’t like me, of whom there were plenty, seemed to need to threaten or to administer the occasional beat down. Prep school seemed better because there was no physical violence. But there was much hazing and social pressure to get identical with the crowd, to get the right kinds of corduroys and khakis and blue blazers and oxford cloth shirts, and so on. If you didn’t fit with the silver spoon model, you came in for a fair amount of abuse, but it was abuse of a mental sort: ostracism. I lived with these people. It was sort of a twenty-four-hour-a-day feeling of being “outcasted.”
What I did was, I moved into the outcast dormitory. This was in tenth grade, or the fourth form, as we called it. There I befriended a whole crew of other outcasts and misfits, the kind of kids who didn’t have much going for them, superficially, on the ice, or on the gridiron. They were all pretty good at getting high and listening to music–in fact these were the things that bound us together (BRAIN SALAD SURGERY, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer; CLOSE TO THE EDGE, by Yes; BENEFIT, by Jethro Tull; THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY, by Genesis; LOW, by David Bowie; WISH YOU WERE HERE and ANIMALS, by Pink Floyd; A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, by Queen, and, soon thereafter, with the dawning of the something new, MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, by Talking Heads). We had hidden talents, drawing, painting, writing, playing a little music. We sat together at our outcast table, and we told outcast jokes, which were self-deprecating, and mostly people left us alone. We buffered ourselves with analgesics, I guess. Not a lethal amount. (We thought we were enlightening ourselves.) We were also sexual failures. Maybe in this area, I should speak for myself. I was, for nearly all of high school, a sexual failure. What this meant, for me, was that I was always lonely. I think the major feature of being outcast was this: it is lonely. The danger with loneliness after a while is that you become misshapen from it. Certain lonely people, and I knew some of them in high school, the people who are just too weird looking, or who had a speech impediment, or whatever it is that forced them into exile, it’s like they bend themselves into their misfortune, and they never can quite snap back from it.
None of us in the Kittredge Cult, which is what other people called us, sometimes, and what we called ourselves after a while, because there’s a certain pride that you take in having a group identity even if it’s a put-down, none of us was a runaway, and none of us was a teenage parent, or a sex worker, or a living-in-squats kind of teenager. We mostly came from families that could have afforded to solve our problems. And yet we had come to try to solve our problems ourselves. And the way we tried to do it was to love each other when no one else would. I guess, in truth, we tried to love each other as a group, because even we weren’t so good at sleeping with one another or being monogamous with one another. It wasn’t till senior year that any of us paired off (and sort of ruined the group identity for good in the process). We loved being in our crew of misfits and outcasts, and our loving one another in this way kept us from worse things, from giving up hope, or falling away into drug addiction (I had to wait for college to really get that going).
If I were to make a kind of dramatis personae of the Kittredge Cult, it would look something like this:
Locky, from Pittsburgh, who had two middle names and was very interested in the visual arts (majored in painting, I think, at Princeton), and who was adopted, along with both his sisters. He wanted to play bass, too, but never really got it off the ground. He smoked a lot of pot, and was the first guy to start going bald (probably at about 17). He had a magnetic charm, believed in people, and found almost everything funny.
Julian, Locky’s roommate. From New Jersey, I think. He understood all the quantitative stuff. Was good at math, and had a mane of blond hair, and wire frame glasses. His parents were divorced, and one of his older brothers had been in a car crash, survived, only to die later from a blood clot or something similar. Julian was probably the closest thing we had to a traditional math/science nerd, but he made up for by being a good guitar player, and by being absolutely besotted with music. He was (is) a soulful guy, full of compassion, and with a mischievous streak.
Paula, who had once been Miss Finnish Fitchburg, very beautiful in a severe Scandinavian way, but totally from the wrong class and part of the world to be a student at our boarding school. She was the first person to play me a Patti Smith album. Generally, she liked guys for a night or two, just to make out a little bit, and then she would move on. I got to be that guy one night with her, and I think just about everyone else did too. She was occasionally harsh, but also very sweet, if a tiny bit distant and self-protective.
Chrissie, who was Paula’s roommate. As I recall it, she was from a really WASPy family on Long Island, but a sort of destroyed family, a Grey Gardens sort of family, which included a lot of drinking and some death. Chrissie was perhaps the single kindest person among us, just really generous. I think she just loved a lot of people, and that was sort of her contribution to the group—kindness. Eventually she married a guy from Yale, a Whiffenpoof, which was sort of unthinkable to all of us, but she never really changed. She just lived in a different environment, with kids and a husband and a backyard.
Johnny Mart, whose dad was career military, probably in special forces or something. Maybe even CIA. I can’t quite remember the details, and I don’t think John knew them either. His brother Bill was in our class, and John was a year younger, and Bill was kind of stiff and saddled with the burden of being the eldest son of the military guy. John was maybe the most rebellious kid I knew in high school, and that was saying something, because our school featured a lot of people who were determined to fuck up spectacularly at being scion of their family. Johnny Mart was getting horrible grades, barely passing, and he seemed to seesaw around in the mood department dangerously. But he was also hilarious, incredibly good looking (with a shock of red hair), sturdy as an ox, and just very loyal to his friends, despite his galloping self-destructiveness.
Lizzo, who was half Korean and half American, whose dad was also military. I always thought she was troubled partly because of being Asian in this all-white, all-Episcopalian environment. And she didn’t often seem troubled. Often, she seemed really gregarious and funny and flirtatious and sweet, but in an instant she would turn and be the most gloomy of all of us, playing with real binge drinking and some self-cutting, and all of that. The kind of person you sometimes really worried about. But just when you started worrying she would about-face and deny the whole thing.
And me: who grew up in the Connecticut suburbs, whose parents divorced in a particularly ugly way, and who was mainly raised by his mother after that, and who escaped a horrible time in public school to go off to St. Paul’s, where he learned about Pynchon and Didion and Byron and Keats.
There were some others, Gifford, Barbara, Doug, Tim, Miranda, Tom, Anne, Carole, and so on. People who didn’t quite identify as being part of our crowd, but who hung around with us some, and in this adjacent group there was one guy who was probably gay and one woman whose mother had had several nervous breakdowns, and one whose uncle had been a special prosecutor during Watergate, and the only Jewish kid in Kittredge, and so on.
And then there was the other John, and he’s the one I mean to write about here. The other John was from New Hampshire, where almost no one was from, in the Kittredge Cult. And his family was particularly mysterious, although maybe all our families were mysterious somehow, inexplicable, not normal, if in fact anyone’s families really is. Among the mysteries of John’s family was his brother Bill, who had Down’s Syndrome. John was very engaged with the question of Bill, and would talk about Bill (for example, I remember in senior year when we were listening to “Mongoloid” by Devo, John expatiating on the chromosomal peculiarities of Down’s), but in an understated way that only revealed how important and formative the situation was. John was otherwise, I think, a very strange guy, a mixture of totally open and provocative and completely reserved. He was hard to get to know. He did pretty badly at St. Paul’s. He was barely getting by, as I recall it, and gave most of his effort to visual arts, and not much to anything else. Also: he wouldn’t do any drugs at all, which was really rare in our group. He was straight edge in a very druggy group.
I lost track of John for a long time. Twenty years? I’d say at least twenty years, maybe more. I’m not sure anyone from our group kept up with him, and in fact the Kittredge Cult wasn’t very good at staying together later on, anyway. I lost touch with most of them, except Lizzo, who was our class agent for a while. Julian went to med school and settled in Burlington. Locky became, I think, an immigration lawyer, in DC. Johnny Mart, was swallowed into the movie business. Chrissie got married. Lizzo married a doctor, an infectious diseases specialist. I became a writer. Somewhere in the nineties, when I was lucky enough to become friendly with the Magnetic Fields, Claudia Gonson, manager and pianist/singer thereof, mentioned John one day, and it turned out it was that John, the John I’d gone to high school with, the artistically gifted and rather solitary guy with the Down’s brother. Then it turned out that John had actually played with the Magnetic Fields some, before they were the Magnetic Fields.
So John lives in the Boston area, turns out, like a lot of people from my high school in NH, and he plays music, makes albums and singles under various assumed names (among them: Bleat, who MySpace page is shown below: ). But the amazing part, and this is what I wanted to write about, is that he also plays in a band called Bill, which, as you can probably imagine, features his brother Bill. In the lead singer’s position. (Bill has a MySpace page, and that’s the first place to stop if you’re interested in this story, and it’s here.) Now, Bill does not have a conventional voice, if you are used to, for example, the American Idol melismatics and histrionics of faux R&B vomitus. But if you have become used to limited vocal training used to suggest greater emotional complexity (I’m thinking of Bob Dylan, or Shane McGowan, or David Thomas, or the later Captain Beefheart), then you are ready for Bill. Bill, in fact, is one of the singers who has most interested me in recent years. What John Gage does, with the rest of his band, is create a variety of idiomatic rock and roll stylings in which Bill attempts to find his way. The first album by Bill was called BAT MAN, and I think it came out more than a decade ago now, though I guess it was seven or eight years ago that I first became aware of it. (There’s a MySpace page for the album here.) Bill writes his own lyrics, of course, and as the title BAT MAN might suggest, they are pretty direct. “Bat Man,” the song is about Bat Man. And one of my personal favorites, “Big Foot,” is about Big Foot, which to my way of thinking is a perfect idea for a song, and I wish I’d got there first. “Big Foot” sort of has a proto-punk/Velvets/Stooges feel to it, and Bill doesn’t hold back on the vocals, which he never does, really. Because he’s not really worried about melodic development, he is free to pursue theatrics (and rhythmic genius), and this he does,
going from whispered or somewhat mumbled passages to first-class blues shouting without bothering about transitional stuff. This means Bill has an expressive voice, and, frankly, it’s a lot more expressive than mine. “Steve Pepper” is a more metallic sounding number, with some very good lead guitar playing (and I should say that John and his collaborators make the backing tracks sound easy, which they can’t have been). And “All My Heart and My Life” is more of a power ballad, where Bill’s vocal is refreshingly novel against the ballad backdrop. Most of Bill’s myriad MySpace pages have amazing video, and the video on Bill’s main page of “Big Foot” is particularly incredible, because it’s shot outdoors and is interrupted by someone coming by to complain not only about the noise, but about the fact that John appears to be taking advantage of Bill, which Bill, himself, adamantly denies.
The larger question, the somewhat disappointing one, is thus raised. What is the purpose of this music? For me this gets to a related and more interesting question: Why make music in the first place? There’s a very specific reason for making this music, as John has pointed out on numerous occasions. People with Down’s Syndrome require cerebral stimulation or else they lose function. That is, if you treat a person with Down’s like they are impaired, they will eventually suffer with that impairment. Bill has a lot of related issues that come with his condition, including some heart problems, and I think that John has made it his business to provide Bill with a visceral and unimpeachably miraculous kind of stimulation, the sort that not one in a hundred thousand families can provide for their loved ones with Down’s: the stage. What could be better? And Bill is kind of a ham (there’s a great story on one of these pages of Bill, at John’s wedding, providing a toast three times, because he was so happy to do it).
On the one hand, therefore, this is music that has a very specific purpose, giving Bill something to think about, more than his rather limited janitorial day job. But then there’s the question, what’s in it for John? Part of it is a sense, I think, that his life is made better by having Bill in it, but in this limited interpretation, that presumes that Bill has to be ill, and that John has to be selfless. The other piece of it for John, I suspect, or so it seems to me as a listener, is that Bill is his brother. Bill and John, actually, have some things in common–an eccentricity, a very strange sense of humor, but also a surprising and welcome loyalty to one another that comes out in their shared output. Music, that is, is something that you make with people. A lot of musicians do it alone, these days, on computer, but for me, music is at its best when its collaborative. And the model of the collaborative musical environment is the music made by families. It’s what got me interested in music, and I’m sure it’s true for many, many musicians out there (you can see it in how many bands are composed of families, The Moore Brothers, Gentle Giant, the Felice Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, the Kinks, AC/DC, to pick just a few examples at hand). Bill’s recordings, then, are the music made by this family, by these brothers, and it doesn’t sound like a lot of other music, at all, but it sounds complex, emotionally complex, and resistant to easy listening, but rewarding according to how much effort you put into listening and how much you try to greet Bill on his terms. These things are true about all the best music, all the best recordings, all the most impressive live shows: they challenge and delight according to the extremity of the challenge.
Maybe it’s because of how successful and moving the “Big Foot” video is that John has now, for some time, been working on a movie starring Bill, an Elvis movie, in which Bill plays the Elvis part. The film is called Elvis’ Dream Attack, and the rumor is that it’s actually going to be finished in 2009. I think John has been editing it and then reshooting for many years now. I have seen only the trailer and a few stills, and it’s fair to say that Elvis’ Dream Attack has its Ed Wood-like qualities (and let me say that I admire Ed Wood a great deal), and that even in the bits that I have seen, Bill, who doesn’t speak very often, looks like he is having a great time. I can think of no other person, frankly, who is better equipped to play Elvis.
Where did John learn to be selfless enough to do this with his life? Is it even right to call what he does selfless? Is it not perhaps nostalgic, too, for a family life and a childhood that would not have been easy, that not only had Bill and his disabilities, but the kind of awkwardnesses and thoughtless cruelties of people in the neighborhood and at school? Nostalgic for that? Nostalgic, perhaps for a time when one lived with one’s brother, no matter his condition? And did the Kittridge Cult have anything to do with the generosity that has enabled John to do what he has done? Is it not true that our school, for all its wealth and decadence, prized charity and volunteerism above all, such that, for example, Alan Kazei, the founder of City Year was chief among my classmates, such that any number of heavy potsmokers, and gulpers-from-the-bottle-of-illicitly-obtained-vodka are now church vestry people, and board members of non-profits? Did some portion of his fair-to-middling high school education sink in for John? Or is it simply that around the Kittredge Cult there was a lot of love, and a lot of acceptance of people no matter who they were, nor how many reversals they had suffered with, despite their economic advantages? The Kittredge Cult, despite the horrible name, taught me, it’s true, that you can love your friends as much as your family, if not more. I felt like they were my family for a while, because they loved me more than my family did in those days, and it’s just next door over, from there, to fail to see a disability in one’s brother, and to love him as a brother, without fail. And that is where this music comes from, I think, and it’s maybe what music is (in the Magnetic Fields line: “The book of love has music in it/in fact that’s where music comes from”), above all, and this is why all the songs in the world, even the ones about shooting heroin, or death on the battlefield, are love songs of a sort.
hi Rick well… BILL and i are working on our new record. a woman from NY (Sara Colangelo) is shooting a documentary about us making it; she’s been shooting since last summer. we finished one song, which is going on ‘wild things, vol. 2 – sounds from the disabled underground’, being put out by the “heavy load” folks. finally, we have some new material! (it’s been great, people being excited about BILL songs from ’92 which is when most of BAT MAN comes from… but we want some stuff that really sounds like we do now.) the new song is called THE RED BIRDS and has a t. rex flavor. we’re also working on a looooong song. Bill G. is a big pink floyd fan. and some songs where Bill is the only instrumentalist. our plan is to issue the next record on vinyl; some other ways too i suppose.bleat is “relaxing” while all this BILL stuff is going on. i have a techno-punk record from ’94 that i need to put out, called “igloo”. my wife really wants to see it come out. (i read about techno and jungle in an article back then, and made it sort of quickly, never having heard the actual music just read about it… so it sounds like something else.) bleat is a singer-songwriter-producer thing. BILL has something kind of new.elvis: i just got thru a terrible broken hard-drive situation but now all is working again. i guess i’m looking at the fall for an Elvis premiere, now that i’ve been delayed by this. i’ll be continuing with the sound edit, and finishing up post-production. no date yet.
we want to finish the BILL lp, and see the documentary finished. we hope that those things will help BILL along. we are not sure where to play now that the abbey lounge is closed. we’d like to play special olympics dances, and institutions for the disabled… when we’ve played places like worcester or manchester it’s great. rock ‘n’ roll towns. people there ignore you if they don’t like the band, and enjoy it if they do. in boston we wind up being drawn into a fair amount of conversations about what it all means, folks seem to want permission before they can enjoy themselves? it’s confusing. i literally will forget “our singer has DS” when talking to an audience member after a show, and they’ll be saying “obviously you enjoy being provocative” and i’m standing there searching my brain… “uh… um. oh, you mean Bill’s DS. oh. we just like working with him. you should hear us rehearse without him, it is soooo boring.” but most people do seem to kind of forget about the DS after 5 or 10 minutes of seeing the band.it’s been great, making the movie with Bill G taught me a lot about working with him. and of course the band is a great experience… for a person with the communication difficulties he has, the clearest expressions we ever see out of him are artistic ones. 2nd-most clearest: “i need, fix my turntable” or “i need a new ipod”.sometimes i meet such well-meaning people, yet they still are determined to get to the bottom of what it’s all about (tell me what you find when you get there, ’cause we don’t know either). “whose idea was it?” well, Bill always grabbed the mic when a band was playing in the house and started singing… “well. hm. i bet he’s just inspired by his older brother.” i suppose so, i was inspired by Bill as well… no matter what you say, even some folks that have seen the band will still think that Bill G has no intentions of any sort, ever. simply because most folks with DS are agreeable about 95% of whatever is presented to them, that doesn’t mean that the last 5% is unimportant. that 5% is all the more important. that’s “the bottom of what it’s all about” that we are determined to explore… because we don’t know, we aren’t sure what’s there, but Bill says he wants to keep going, so we do. he’s pretty easygoing about what flavor of ice cream he wants,but ask him if he wants to stop singing and he says “NO, I’M NOT DONE YET.”i often think of it in the context of jim morrison. being in a band with Bill G and the issues he brings, has still got to be a million times better than being in a band with morrison. Bill G consistently shows up ready to work, in a good mood, relaxed, and pleasant to be around. we have no need to intellectualize music to enjoy working together and the artistic results. i can’t understand half of what jagger in the ’60s, or early iggy pop, are singing about, and it just doesn’t matter. i “get it” enough to enjoy it. what else matters? the romantic myths about songwriters? that stuff is only good for biopics. especially sucky biopics. at this point i have heard too many stories about brian wilson to enjoy his music. which is a terrible place to be. nirvana too.gary glitter rules. because the music is awesome. i turn a deaf ear to the stories. i’ve learned my lesson. …how did i end up here?, in this email. i’d better get out while i can. some links:
High school image by L. Flannel Jones.