Wake Up, Thomas
The song posted at the bottom of this entry was born in 2008, in Brooklyn, just before I met my brother for a long work/vacation. Hamburg, Germany! He was on an Academic conference for Computational Linguistics, and I brought my baritone ukulele so I could write a bit. He was out of the apartment most days, so I had time. I was still drinking then, and we went out and caroused the nights away at bars in the vicinity. Mostly gay bars, but some stuff all over the city, depending on which direction the evening took us.
We saw the Rothko exhibit touring Hamburg at the time on that trip. Scotty isn’t much for modern art, but I remembered – Vonnegut was extremely close with quite a few of the guys from the abstract expressionist movement, and Bluebeard is one of the few books I’ve ever managed to get through four or five times. It’s about art, and love, and the forms it can take – romantic or otherwise. Family and chosen family.
About how life expands and contracts – about the trauma of living through WWII – about the bombing of Dresden. Ideas, big and small. Synchronicity. People finding one another, finding joy – even through the process of sifting through body parts in the smoking char of a razed battlefield. Even over years, over decades.
It’s a story of self-actualization.
And so on…
Vonnegut’s Bluebeard references an old legend. A rich man is rumored to be a pirate. He’s upper-strata wealthy. One percent, one might say these days… The type of guy who could live in a castle, but also perhaps might need to go out to sea for long stretches.
Bluebeard falls in love, and a young woman is swept off her feet, dazzled by the legend of the rumored pirate king. Very quickly the two wed, and she moves into his cliffside fortress.
“You may have access to any room in the castle,” her husband tells her on their wedding night, “but you may never enter the chamber attached to the far end of the cellar.”
The woman doesn’t think much about swearing such an oath. What could be so alluring about the cellar, anyway,? She shrugs – men must have their secrets, she reasons, and starts to unpack silks, linens, lace from the oaken dowry her merchant father managed to scrape together.
The story is told in pieces, in circles, like all good epic tales.
Eventually, the wife realizes she doesn’t care where the money comes from. It’s okay if he has foreign business in far off lands, or is a cutthroat pirate, marauder of the high seas. We all have blood on our hands, she thinks to herself one day, when she watches her red-faced maid kill a chicken for dinner.
Still, sometimes she makes the trip to town for fabrics or sewing notions. Invariably, she hears whispers… other rumors muttered under the breath of the townsfolk.
Bluebeard’s first five wives had all died mysteriously, and hushed tales of her husband’s brutality toward his business rivals seeped into her carefree days in town, at the tailor, waiting for the cobbler, enjoying a lunch of kidney pie at the clapboard inn and tavern.
I have to know, she says to herself.
She watches, waits, observes. Finally figures out which key on the big jangling ring opens the antechamber. This happens over years and years. Her husband goes away. Soon after, she insists she needs the butler’s master key ring, then disappears.
Starting in the attic, she moves down toward the basement, mentally memorizing each key, scratching it off the list in her mind. Intermittently, her husband comes back from conquests, mergers. His wealth is growing still more vast, and the jewels, the satins, ivory combs he bestows upon her make her flush with vanity.
Soon enough, though, he”s off on another adventure. She’s left alone with a growing trove of treasures, and a burning need to find out the looming secret tucked away in the cellar, far beneath her quarters. She feels conflicted, sitting inside her warm chamber, fondling the iron circle, counting keys, checking them off one by one in her memory.
She knows her husband’s wrath can be severe, and is terrified he might get angry, divorce her, cast her out. Still, she’s driven by the rumors, the curiosity… Why won’t he talk about his first four wives?
Seasons pass. They grow closer. She can’t bear children but it doesn’t seem to bother him. They laugh by fires, playing chess, sipping port long into the night. But, he’s gone for long stretches at a time, and the isolation of the castle overwhelms her thoughts. The staff is strident and formal, and while they can be friendly at times, she’s painfully lonely.
And yes, she’s curious. That’s not a crime. People always want to think it a fatal sin, a woman’s curiosity – she thinks to herself. She smiles when she whispers, hell, even Eve was cast out of the Garden for wanting to make applesauce. People have vicious double standards. Even good, kind people.
Anyway. Finally, she makes it down to the cellar. Her husband arrives home from a trip, showers her with kisses and jewels, gets his key ring back from the stone-faced butler, and they have wine- well into the evening, chatting, playing chess, making love. She falls asleep in his arms, and he starts to snore, which wakes her up, and she realizes his key-ring is on the nightstand.
Finally! She creeps out of bed, grabs the key ring ever so slowly. Silently, like she’s practiced.
She creeps down, alone to the cellar, groping around silent, still. She’s terrified, but she’s making no sounds. She’s memorized the shape and sizes of the keys over the years. Moving with stealth and slow determination, she approaches the door – the one area of the house forbidden to her. Even as she finally finds the right fit, and it slides slowly into the lock, she’s sighs relief. Finally. She’s going to solve this mystery and climb back in bed with her loving husband.
Maybe I don’t even need to know the answer to this question, she says to herself. Maybe there’s no why? Maybe why is a useful question, but there’s never really a concrete answer? Maybe, she thinks, I can love him through anything? Even as she enters the dark chamber, as she smells an old rot.
She lights a torch, skirts the edge of the room, counterclockwise. She sees enough to know. The bodies. The bones. The jewels, dresses, letters – some ripped up, strewn, confetti-style on top of headless torsos.
I can love him through this, she says to herself. I know now – he truly loves me. He truly loved them all. The last thing she sees is a shadow in the door, before she drops the torch and the flame dies forever.
She can barely breathe. Her heart throbs in her throat, choking her thoughts. Her ears pound with thrum.
And so on…
Which is all to say, my brother and I wandered around the Rothko exhibit, because he was very nice about not making the entire ten days about his academic schedule, about going to straight bars, about anything more than a chance to reconnect with one another, far from the small St. Louis suburb where we were both born.
I sang the germ, the genesis, the egg of this song to him, loudly, late at night, after we went out drinking and celebrating his latest academic triumph. I don’t know what it had to do with. He’s a computational linguist, and he didn’t seem to need me to hear him present at the actual conference. He said I would be bored and wouldn’t understand all the acronyms and lingo. I was curious, but I didn’t need all the answers. Brothers don’t need to explain things to each other immediately.
It goes in circles, over years. The conversation stays open.
But in Bluebeard, Vonnegut mentions Rothko, or a character very similar to him. Scotty wasn’t too keen on the exhibit but he wandered around, patient with his little brother. I was insanely curious, and made sure to notice the dates.
Its all just rectangles and squares, Scotty said.
Yeah, but there’s an evolution, I countered back.
Yeah, but isn’t it… the same?
Well, notice how the shapes get cleaner? Notice how the process, the brush strokes, the scope, size, rich luxury – all of it grows and grows over the years?
Sort of… say more?
It gets richer over the years.
Oh, so you mean he can afford more paint?
Sure, but the art gets richer. Bigger canvasses.
And a bigger studio!
And has richer clients?
Exactly! And then…
And then, what?
By this time Scotty and I were at the end of the visit. He reads the last plaque on the last painting. About Rothko’s suicide.
“Rothko’s depression and seclusion were exacerbated by his drinking. In 1970, Rothko committed suicide by a combination of overdose on barbiturates and a major cut to an artery in his right arm with a razor blade. He left no suicide note.”
In final fit of irony, Rothko died just before the final completion of a massive collection of work he called “the chapel.” He had turned his massive studio into a cathedral to color, texture, light. Inspiration.
And so on…
I kept thinking about Vonnegut and Rothko for years after that. I still think about the two men, sometimes. Drawing parallels late at night, when I’m trying to put my mind to bed.
He was best friends with Vonnegut.
They were in the bombing of Dresden together.
They helped each other get rich and famous, and stayed close, even as their family structures got complicated, even as they both abused alcohol, capitulated to despair, became lapdogs to the terror lurking forever, behind their eyes, when they came home from the war. The helpless disgust they both felt, picking through body parts in the quiet aftermath of the bombing of Dresden.
They did everything they could for one another, but they couldn’t process each other’s trauma. Nobody can do that but you.
They were like brothers to one another. They made it through the challenges, helped one another on the journey of life. Through joy, fear, overwhelming suffering. Births and deaths, cycles and circles, and I’m sure they both drank way too much. It’s well documented by the two men themselves and those who could bear to be around them.
I met Vonnegut once when I was in college. He was touring with William Styron and Joseph Heller. Scotty wasn’t with me when I got to meet him. I shook his hand, and tried not to gush like the 20 year old child/fan boy I absolutely was at the time.
And so on…
This song used to be called Wait. It was about being ready for a big career break and still having to wait your turn.
Eventually, it evolved into a musical theater song I was writing for Thin Skin Jonny. I wanted to make the boys who started my band with me famous. I was writing a musical for all the people who treated me like a brother over the years.
The end of act one was “Wake Up, Thomas.”
This is the circumstance – Micky sings to his lover who is dying of AIDS. He sings about a lost generation, about assisted suicide, about a quiet pain the Boomers and Gen X homosexuals endured as our chosen brothers died all around us.
The song may evolve yet again. I haven’t decided yet.
And so on…
“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” – Mark Rothko