The Tall Girl Comes Home

In Chapter 3, “Regulars” (pp. 34-35) of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I write about a gallant intervention against a schoolyard bully that my late son Kevin made in the sixth grade, while we were living in Middlebury, Vermont. The passage is below:

 

A quality in Kevin that I admired perhaps even more than I admired his musical gifts can be summed up in a story I heard about him at his memorial service.

The story was told to me by a classmate of his, a beautiful young woman with long, thick, curly dark tresses and dark eyes. In sixth grade she had experienced one of those rare kidhood growth-spurts that almost overnight set her apart from everybody else. She topped out at six feet. Her height and beauty, neither of which she could understand, much less control, put her in the cross-hairs of certain boys in the class. She never invited this: her family was poor, her mother single, and she came to school in faded jeans and flannel shirts, or T-shirts with “cool” slogans. Just a kid in grade school.

One boy in particular seemed to take her innocently stunning appearance as some kind of personal reflection on him, or challenge. The boy was built thick and tough; he was on a track to star as a college ice-hockey player. His method for dealing with her daring to be tall was to swagger up to her on the school grounds before classes or at lunch hour, and punch her. Repeatedly. Hard. On her shoulders. On her chest. Sometimes in her face. She bruised, and she bled, but she didn’t know what to do. She stood there and took it. Sometimes the pain and humiliation made her cry silently. Other kids watched from a distance. No kid made an effort to intervene. No teacher, apparently, was aware what was happening. And the girl never told anyone.

This all stopped when Kevin walked up to the two of them one day while the punching was going on and said: “Patrick, you’re being a dick,” and walked away. Patrick did not go after him. It was as if he said to himself, “Yeah—I guess I’m a dick.” He grew up to be a pretty good guy. And a college hockey star.

It’s not for me to say, but I think the tall girl loved Kevin. Who didn’t?

Last week, the Tall Girl came back home to Vermont.

Her name is Leah. She has been living in Ireland for the last several years. She’d graduated the University of Vermont with a degree in gender and women’s studies, studies, married a boyfriend, and followed him to Cork, the graceful small city on the coastal southwest, bisected by the River Lee.

Another child; then divorce.

Leah found a community of young musicians (coincidence? Maybe!), did some radio announcing, and took up a career as a songwriter. She has never stopped thinking about my son.

I drove up from Castleton to Middlebury to meet her—she makes an annual trip home to visit her mother—and we had lunch on the deck of a riverside restaurant on a balmy midsummer afternoon. Leah is in her early 30s now, but she has not changed dramatically from her year in sixth grade, 1996. Nor from her appearance at the memorial service for Kevin in July of 2005. She had long since replaced the faded jeans and flannel shirts; she was wearing a chic summer dress and heels. She was no longer a gangly skinny kid, but the essential Leah was still fully present. She wore her lustrous black hair long and in curls, as she had through her difficult childhood. She spoke easily and warmly (I heard traces of an Irish accent); but her expressive dark eyes tended to drift, as if she were halfway inside a world known only to her.

I learned some new things from Leah as we talked.

I learned that it had been not one boy but two who assaulted her daily on the playground until Kevin walked up. The boys had beaten her arms and her face, often drawing blood. They had jumped up and down on her feet. They had spat in her face.

I learned that it was not true that teachers were unaware of what was happening. They were aware, all right. They just didn’t do anything about it.

I learned that the school playground was not the only place where Leah had suffered. She’d been tormented inside and outside the school. Once, the first bully grabbed Leah’s thick hair in both hands and dragged her out of her classroom seat by it. Another time, the two attacked her in front of the principal’s office.

In fact, Leah suffered more or less continually as a child. She led a life of quiet desperation. Her impoverished household was a version of Hell. Her mother had done her best to keep things together, but she was disabled and emotionally fragile and often needed tending from Leah. The father, a hard and scowling man, brooded over the family until Leah’s mother worked up the will to leave him. He died year ago.

I learned that Kevin was her savior, and not only on the day he confronted Patrick.

“The only reason I kept going to school was Kevin,” she told me as she studied the river. “He was the only good thing in my life. My mother would rant and rage as she drove me to school. But as soon as I got out of the car, there was Kevin, and we would start laughing right away. He could always make me laugh. He was so funny!”

Leah told of Kevin’s talent for mimicking other people—teachers, classmates. It was a gift that we’d noticed around the house, as well. Often, we noticed it while wincing.

She stuck around him. He seemed happy to have her company. Yet they never so much as held hands. Kevin may not have been aware of her adoration. Or he didn’t know what to do with it. He was just a kid. So was Leah.

They remained friends for three more years, through middle school. Kevin’s guitar talents were earning him a reputation by then.

In the fall of 1997, when Kevin was freshly 14, we entered him in his first competition, simply to get him some experience in that pressurized world. The competition was the formidable Down Beat Magazine’s annual student music awards. Kevin sat in our living room, one foot propped on the arch of the other, his ball cap on backwards; and, using retail mics and soundboard, recorded three tunes in each of two genres, jazz and rock. His choices were challenging and sophisticated. In the jazz category, he tackled “Blue Monk” by Thelonius Monk, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Fats Waller, and “Satin Doll” by Billy Strayhorn. In blues, he submitted “Stormy Monday” by T-Bone Walker, “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King, and “Tore Down” by Sonny Thompson. The submissions were multi-track dubs, in which Kevin performed lead, rhythm, and, on some of the tunes, harmony and a bass line off his electric guitar.

We sent the submissions in, after warning him not to get his hopes up. This was just for experience.

The following June, Down Beat announced its winners. Kevin had won for his age-group in both his categories. He got his picture in the local paper.

Kevin never preened or strutted after these awards. That would not have been Kevin. He was proud; it showed at the corners of his mouth; but he didn’t talk about it. I don’t know what, if anything, passed between him and Leah concerning his new local celebrity. Probably not much, if I know my late son. They continued their friendship.

Kevin at Interlochen

Life began to pull them apart shortly after that. Kevin found to his delight that he had been accepted into the prestigious Interlochen Academy for the Arts in Traverse City, Michigan. He would take up his studies in the autumn of 1998. I would drive him the eight hundred miles from Middlebury to Montreal, then west along the majestic Trans Canada Highway to Sault Ste. Marie, and then south through pine forests that bordered the highway to the new home that would nurture and gladden him for the next three years.

“I knew that he had to go to Interlochen, and I was happy for him,” Leah told me. Kevin never mentioned the relationship, nor the parting. He was an intensely private young man.

“I was proud of him. Happy for him,” Leah told me.

I had taken out my camera to make some photographs of her, then put it down. It was when the talk turned to Kevin’s departure from Middlebury that Leah’s eyes filled.

My camera remained on the table between us. I’d made a few photos of her at the start of her meal. And now I wanted to lift the camera again and focus on Leah’s teary eyes. It would have been so easy, and her tears would have symbolized the closing of a circle between these beautiful young people.

But I could not do it. I could not bring myself to violate this private moment.

Leah told me as we said good-bye that she had noticed my hands hovering near the camera. She told me that it would have been all right with her.

But it would not be all right with me. Not with Kevin watching. Which I felt he was.

I left the camera lying on the table between us. I will be happy for the remainder of my life that I refrained from intruding on Leah’s private moment of grief.

And I will regret for the remainder of my life that I left my camera lying.

~

HERE IS KEVIN PLAYING “MY ROMANCE”

THE REST OF THE BOOBY CD!

Here are the other three pieces that Kevin and Booby recorded in Florida during that sublime all-night session in 2000 with his pal and bassist Peter Rogers and the promising young drummer Scott Shad.

Scott’s life ended in tragedy only a few weeks later. I lay out the details in Chapter 5 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE:

Kevin’s voice was leaden when he called home in March. Scott Shad, the gifted young drummer who’d sat in on that magical recording session in Jacksonville, was dead. Scott was a diabetes sufferer. On March 6, he’d been caught without a needed dosage of insulin at the worst possible time.

Kevin explained the details in an email:

Subject: hey

Date: Thu, 08 Mar 2001 00:13:12

From: “Kevin Powers” <hoist@hotmail.com>

To: hfleming@adelphia.net, ropo@sover.net

hey guys-

. . . we found out that scott had a free period at school so he went to get a cd and on the way back I guess he had a seizure while he was driving on the highway and went across the lanes and into a building wall.

I’ve never known anyone as well as him who has died so its really weird. its just really really shocking on so many levels. how is dean?  give grammy my love and I’ll see you guys in a week or so

Kevin

He wrote another, even more heartfelt letter to the Cleveland novelist, screenwriter, musician and family friend Scott Lax. Scott was among the first to recognize Kevin’s talent, having met him and the family at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the 1990s. Scott formed strong bonds with both Dean and Kevin. He wrote to Kev after I had told him of my son’s devastation. Kevin replied:

Hey Scott-

Thanks for writing.  Its unbelievable how powerless I felt when it happened.  He was such a great guy and so inspirational.  I’ve never lost such a close friend before.  I think you’d like him-Never once had a negative thing to say all smiles and incredibly modest just an all around good kid.  He was a divine talent on the drums.  He played in another band that just got signed and has been together since Jr. High.  I don’t know what to do I know that I have to be strong but its hard knowing we won’t have a chance to play or just hang out anymore.  So it will be hard but I’ll have to cope with it.  But memories are everything, he was a happy kid so he had a happy 18 years which is the most important thing.

I hope we can keep in touch and if you have any advice on ways to deal

with this I’d like to hear it,

Kevin

Kevin himself  had less than five years to live.

ANNIE DON’T WAKE THE DAY

Dean and Kevin recorded this rollicking ballad in 2004. It is among the best of several pieces the two of them produced over that summer, a happy time for both of them, when Kevin visited his older brother in Dean’s Colorado Springs apartment. Kev’s schizophrenia had forced him to suspend his music education at the Berklee’s Music School in Boston, and the ensuing year would be his last. But this summer was filled with creative effort and close loving friendship between the two brothers.

Dean wrote and sings lead on “Annie Don’t Wake the Day.” He also created the visual montage that accompanies this song on YouTube. At about the 1:45 mark, the boys launch into blazing alternating guitar solos: Dean/Kevin/Dean/Kevin.

THE RIVER EAST OF HOME

Of all the music Dean and Kevin wrote and recorded together, this ballad is far and away my favorite. It is a quietly transfixing anthem of wayward drift and redemption. Dean composed it not long after his recovery from an addiction to alcohol that had taken hold of him after a terrifying car accident when he was 16, with him at the wheel. The boys recorded it at Dean’s apartment in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he’d invited his brother, by then afflicted with schizophrenia, to spend several months with him. Dean sings lead; Kev sings harmony and contributes the majestic solo midway through, which I describe below.

Remembering Kevin on his birthday. Dean wrote and sings lead on this luminous ballad, "The River East of Home," my favorite among all the work they did together. Kev sings harmony and comes in with a towering solo about halfway through.Be sure to push the sound button up.

Posted by Ron Powers on Thursday, July 21, 2016

 

FROM CHAPTER 15 OF NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, “. . .something unexplainable. . .”

Dean’s self-willed recovery—reprieve is probably the better word—held benefits for his younger brother. Kevin was able to make it through his spring semester [at the Berklee School of Music] without another setback.  Dean invited him to spend the summer in Fort Collins, passing up the chance to return to his beloved Front Range for road-building work. He had rented an apartment on the first floor of a modest brown wood-frame house in a residential neighborhood not far from the university campus. Kevin gratefully accepted, bringing with him his Martin and amp, and the prescription drugs that were now a part of his daily obligations.

The two of them had a fine old time, the best time of their lives together. They played coffeehouses and bars around Fort Collins and along the winding mountain roads above the city. Sometimes Kevin set aside his guitar and backed Dean up on a borrowed drum-set, playing as though it were the only instrument he had ever touched. Dean wrote a new flurry of ballads, including the two best pieces of his life, and the brothers captured them all on the TEAC recorder that Dean had used for his earlier songs. When Honoree and I arrived for a mid-summer visit, the two were as eager to let us hear them as Kevin had been to play the Booby pieces for me in the Burlington airport two years earlier. They tugged us into Kevin’s room almost before we had set our bags down, and flipped on the TEAC.

We listened first to “Annie Don’t Wake the Day,” Dean’s madcap romp about a night on the town with a frolicsome, laughing girl who skips and dances through the revels, sits in briefly with a bar band, then whirls on, “back out on the street with the bright lights shinin’ away.” Dean sings lead vocals and alternates with Kevin in a jubilant guitar bridge, two solos apiece, the brothers driving hard, a pair of young tigers bursting loose from their cages.

“It’s been a long, crazy night, but don’t wake the day!”

That was for starters. The anthem that followed, the cathedral of notes and lyrics that meditate on loss and journey and hope, on redemption-through-letting-go, stopped our breathing and cupped us in its guileless majesty.

Its title was—is—will always be—“The River East of Home.” Dean wrote it and sang lead; Kevin, harmony. A bridge in the midst of the verses brings up Kevin’s guitar in a cascade of notes that seem to fall from a high place and gather for a moment in a pool before overflowing and dropping again, until they find resolution in the flowing melody at the base.

The opening image is of a figure on horseback, forging along a western mountain path until horse and rider fetch up “at some forgotten fountain.” The rider tries to push his filly on through. “But though it wasn’t wide/She buckled and she balked/She couldn’t see the other side.” The rider tells us of his years of roving between the wilds and mountains. Sometimes he’s on an Arizona highway, right down that center line. Sometimes, crossing water, he falls, and stays down “until I’m good and ready. When I can’t fight the current no more/You’ll find me in the eddy.”

 

But always, the chorus tells us, the rider is searching. Just as Yeats’s wanderer searches for the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun, the rider is on a quest for the elusive River East of Home. It sounds as though his quest will be eternal. But then, “One chipped and faded chapel shines up out of the valley.” The rider ventures through the doorway, because a voice, long forgotten, calls him. “I said my life’s been driftin.’ He said that there’s an answer. And if I just believe, this slender reed becomes an anchor.

“I let the river go.”

KEVIN PERFORMANCE VIDEO

Here is Kevin in an ensemble performance of “A Day in the Life of a Fool,” a part of a spring concert by Interlochen string musicians under the direction of John Wunsch. Kevin will take his chair immediately to the right of Mr. Wunsch, amidst a semicircle of some of the most talented guitarists and harpists in the country. He performs at least two guitar solos in this number (my recollection is hazy; another guitarist may have one solo, but Kevin’s unique buttery sound is ingrained in my memory). The last one shows him at full throttle!

This piece is beautifully arranged, probably by Mr. Wunsch. It begins sedately, but builds in complexity and intensity, and Kevin’s solos showcase his incredible finger speed. At the end, as the musicians stand to take their bows, Kev flashes his trademark lopsided grin, which I write about in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

So: please turn off all cell phones. No flash photography. Enjoy!