Editor's note: On Tuesday, Oct. 4, my dear friend Larry Lewis died of cancer. He was 49 years old. A great guitarist, fine singer and excellent writer, he died tough and uncomplaining, as befitted a blue-collar kid from the East Side of Cleveland. Shortly before his death he wrote an essay about growing up and getting ready to die, something he'd been doing all his life. Here is an excerpt. -- Mike Hudson
Oct. 23, 1978. I'll never forget the date. That's the first time I ever performed onstage in front of people with my first band, Medusa Cranks.
I was a confused 16-year-old from a dysfunctional family and looking for some outlet to vent the anger, isolation and depression that filled my heart and soul.
Armed with my brand new Fender Stratocaster guitar and Big Muff distortion box, my three-piece hit the stage in front of about 25 people. To me it seemed like a crowd.
My mother and stepfather were in attendance for moral support. In their eyes I could do no wrong, even if their teenage son was singing songs he wrote with titles like "I Laugh At Death" and "Cleveland D.O.A."
"You won't live another day. Just another Cleveland D.O.A."
Applause and hoots and hollers from the "crowd." I had found my future.
Fitzpatrick's in the Flats was a dump of a bar. But most bars at that time wouldn't even touch bands like ours. The bars that did were all dumps, and they could be counted on one hand.
One of the major players was a few doors down Old River Road -- the Pirate's Cove, known for its urine-soaked men's room. Every Thursday, the bar offered its "alternative" night -- as it was politely called.
This particular night was a tough one for my new band. Besides stage-fright jitters, we had to contend with competition from the Cove, because big local punk bands the Dead Boys and the Pagans were playing there.
I would have preferred to be there -- they were the high-rollers, if such a thing existed, on the scene -- but I had to be content with having gotten my mostly underage band into this bar to play a gig. But our band was real, we made music, and I felt like I had found a new home.
After our set, I sat at a table with my parents. They told me what a great job I'd done. The evening's headlining band, a local outfit called the Lepers, came over with good words about the set. A few pats on the back and I could feel my head swelling.
I had met lead guitarist Jimmy Bush through an ad in the Cleveland Scene, the weekly entertainment publication. Jimmy stuttered so bad it was almost comical, but he was a year older than me and much more knowledgeable about the fledging music scenes in New York and London.
It was from Jimmy that I first heard of the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the MC5 and the Ramones.
Since neither of us drove yet, we would spend hours on the phone talking about music and how great our band was going to be.
Jimmy played a cheap unknown-brand Les Paul copy. He told me about a record shop in Cleveland Heights called The Drome, said it was the record store for everything underground and punk.
The store was small, with a sort of upper deck where I was told the Pagans and Pere Ubu rehearsed sometimes. Its bins were filled with albums and singles by bands I had no idea even existed.
The Pagans' first single, "Six And Change," was there for sale in a box for 99 cents, so of course I bought one. There were also fanzines, homemade publications produced by kids just like me, crammed with interviews and record reviews of the latest bands, and I bought a ton of them.
That was another life-changing experience -- knowing that I wasn't alone in my self-imposed world of confusion. There were a whole bunch of freaks just like me with similar interests out there.
My only problem now was convincing my parents how serious I was about the whole band thing and how we needed a place to rehearse. Could we use the basement?
"Your father will never allow it," Mom told me. My stepfather was a recovering alcoholic and a man of few words. In between jobs, he slept for days on end, was an "artist," and cheated on my mom.
I begged for use of the basement, and within a few days and after much hesitation, they both agreed to give us a chance.
With the basement windows insulated with blocks of foam and carpeting, we started actual rehearsals as a true band. I had a very old microphone at first, one that looked like an ancient relic from an early radio show. Our sound system consisted of plugging that old mic into channel two of my new Fender Twin Reverb.
Kenny Blake, a stocky guy with curly hair, proved himself to be a competent drummer, shaking all of the antique glassware upstairs with his heavy beat.
Surprisingly, Jim and I got our guitars in tune, and our clangorous punk sound was born, even without a bass player. We never had a bass player -- it didn't seem that urgent.
What was urgent was to play out live and become rock stars.
My parents solved the noise problem quite simply. My stepfather would go meet his girlfriend under the excuse of attending another Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, while my mom would go to her dance lessons at the local YWCA.
Within two months, we had a set list and about 15 songs. We recorded a very crude demo tape of three songs that I passed on to the Lepers, who set us up with that first gig at Fitzpatrick's.
Inspired by the fanzines I had bought at The Drome, I decided to start one of my own. I never had any real ambitions of being a legitimate writer, but I reasoned that I could pull it off. I could get records for free to review, I could get into shows for free, I could interview and meet bands for free, and of course I could plug my own band all the way along. I would create my own press.
Besides being absolutely self-indulgent, Mongoloid, named after the Devo song, was a small local success. It was simplistic, crudely produced and informative. I was finally part of the scene.
I printed 200 copies of the first issue -- two letter-sized pages with a single staple -- and dropped them off wherever they would take them.
The Cranks continued to play out, and I was making connections and meeting people along the way. One of the most important friendships established was with Mike Hudson and the Pagans themselves. Mike's brother, Brian, was the drummer and worked in the circulation department of the Euclid News Journal, and I would ride my 10-speed bike there to drop off copies of Mongoloid.
I became a regular visitor to Mike's apartment in the projects, where he lived with his wife, Mary, and newborn son.
He quickly took me under his wing as my mentor, not only in music but in life itself. He turned me on to even more music and the joys of writing. We smoked pot together and drank beers, but he was extremely cautious with me in regard to the harder drugs that he was indulging in at the time. Hell, I still hadn't figured out the joys of alcohol yet, much less the good stuff. At this time I did drink beer, but the taste disgusted me, and I smoked pot.
My friendship with Mike and the Pagans grew, and the Cranks were asked to open shows for them. It was all too easy, getting noticed, being cool, it happened too fast.
I quickly lost interest in Euclid Senior High. I hated going there so much that I enrolled in night school and summer school -- where the entire class stole the answer key to the final exam -- just to graduate a year early and get the hell out of there. I had enough credits to do that, and I was having too much fun with my new older friends, going to bars and making music.
There's the adage, "Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll." I had two out of three working for me at my young age.
The Cranks were my rock and roll.
Thanks to some of the guys from high school and my band peers, I started experimenting with drugs besides pot. Speed was a favorite, as were the downers. Back then, pot would still make me laugh, and I enjoyed the buzz, but I quickly discovered that with a few pills and a couple more beers I became more sociable. Sadly, there was no sex involved in the equation -- yet. That was a big factor for a horny 16-year-old guy.
I consumed all my energy cramming for night school, playing with the Cranks, writing Mongoloid, and working part-time at a fast food restaurant called The Red Barn on East 222nd Street, right across the street from Euclid High.
The Cranks had only played a half-dozen shows and had never set foot in a recording studio. I was always pissed that John Thompson (aka Johnny Dromette), who owned and ran The Drome record store and was starting his own record label, never took as much interest in us as he had in the Pagans and the Lepers.
I wasn't writing songs of love -- l hadn't really experienced it yet. My songs were of anger and death. I saw no future in my life, being confident that I would be dead before the age of 18. I was trying to cram everything in as fast as I could. I glorified my demise, welcomed it. I was gonna die for the cause, and that cause simply was that the world was fucked up and that I hated it and everyone in it, including myself.
The best thing that Dromette did for me was putting us on the bill for his "Disasto 3" concert at the old WHK Auditorium in Cleveland's midtown ghetto neighborhood.
The date was Dec. 30, 1978, and the show was billed as "1979-OK!" The Pagans singles were out, and they were in their shining moment of the local punk scene as the headliners for the event.
So all hard feelings toward Johnny and the recording thing were set aside, because it was that night I had my greatest gig and was part of Cleveland music history.
We were scheduled to play second in the 9:40 p.m. until 10 p.m. time slot. But, like all good things, everything was running behind schedule.
The perk? We had our own dressing room, even if it was the size of a closet. Six months earlier, I had never imagined I'd have my own dressing room! I spent most of my time in the Pagans' room. I watched as the coke was passed freely and beers consumed, but none was offered. Fear of corrupting us?
The theater was already filled when we took the stage. Cranks' tunes like "Cleveland D.O.A.," "I Laugh At Death" and "Delinquent" stirred the already messed-up crowd. Truly a shining moment for myself -- and yes, unlike so many others who lie about the fact, I can actually say that I performed and witnessed that fateful night.
Way past their scheduled time, the Pagans finally assaulted the stage. Beers started flying. Mike was falling down, slipping on all of the stale liquid heaved in his direction. A French Provincial couch was thrown from the old balcony and floor lights began exploding.
I was afraid it would become a full-blown riot, but the band played on as though nothing was going on around them. One of the best shows I ever witnessed.
Through my connections with the Pagans, playing out live, and Mongoloid magazine, I had a bunch of new friends. One of them was Robert Conn, the singer on the Pagans' first single. We decided to start a new band. He'd sing and I'd just play guitar, and we were called the AK-47s, after the Russian weapon of the same name.
We practiced in his Eastlake garage, and the cops of that fine city once came for a noise disturbance complaint and noticed that he had a small American flag sewed onto the back of his leather jacket and arrested him.
Like all the bands I had been in so far, the AKs only played a handful of shows. Mike Hudson took us into a recording studio -- my first time in a studio -- and we recorded two songs, the best thing we accomplished. "Accident," written in five minutes, would appear on the first Terminal Records release, the "Cleveland Confidential" EP.
My drug use was increasing. I was drinking more on weekends and smoking a lot of pot. I had taken acid, loved uppers, and my new favorite was Quaaludes. The one thing I do pride myself on is that I've never dealt any kind of drugs. I always had a thing about that.
At my local mall there were two different record stores. One of them was called Musicland, and it was there that I met a "new wave" chick named Cindy, who seemed interested in me. I went to the store just hoping she'd be there working. We went to a couple of shows together, and one evening I was invited to her apartment.
She changed into cut-off shorts and a tight T-shirt. We listened to the latest vinyl that she had copped from the store. Her black cat walked around ignoring us. Before I knew it, she was on the plush carpeting with me on top, and just like that I was no longer a virgin. The last of whatever innocence I had left was stripped away while Roxy Music played in the background.
"Why didn't you tell me that you were a virgin?" she asked me.
"Would it have made a difference?" I asked back.
"Well, no, but ..."
She smirked under her heavy makeup and pouting lips and messed-up hair.
The rest of the '80s would be a blur to me. Too many bands. Living the rock and roll lifestyle to the hilt but with no monetary success. I went with every girl I could find. I hurt a lot of them, left a lot of broken hearts, and I regret that, I never meant to. It just seemed like the thing to do.
The '90s would be filled with even more alcohol and confusion. The first decade of the 2000s would bring some stability, but still overflowing with chemical dependency.
I remember the day Dr. Freedom Johnson, Director, Oncologic, Reconstructive and Cranial Base Surgery at MetroHealth Medical Center, walked into the examination room where I was sitting. It was Nov. 1, 2010. I had been through a battery of tests over the last month for what I thought was a sore throat.
The verdict was in. I was diagnosed with Stage Four throat cancer. A vocalist with throat cancer -- how ironic, I thought to myself.
I immediately went into the studio to record 10 songs that would be titled "The Cancer Demos." One song I recorded, with just me playing guitar, was "Finale." I think it's the best song I've ever written in my life, and the chorus tells it all.
"Nothing's funny, I don't get the joke, I've lost all living, I've lost all hope. The days just pass and I'm riding them out. Counting it down, that's what it's all about. Calm as can be, I'm not afraid. Wish I could have lingered, wish I could have stayed. But my time is up and it's time to go. I truly hope you enjoyed the show."
I'd go through the chemo and the 40 radiation treatments. All my teeth had to be extracted before this. So it was an unpleasant holiday time. I was unable to chew and forced to accept a liquid diet. My weight dwindled to 103 pounds.
Luckily, the chemo didn't cause my hair to fall out. That seemed to be the only good thing going for me. Funny -- I was given five years, if I stayed healthy, to live, and I was worried about my damn long hair.
Flash forward to May 2011. I'm sitting at a downtown bar, Becky's, with my ex-girlfriend. We're drinking pints of Labatt's Blue. I've taken a percocet for my painfully swelling throat. I'm waiting for the next week's PET scan to tell me how much cancer I have left inside me. I still have no teeth.
I watch the other patrons laugh and eat their appetizers, digging life, and all I want to do is to be able to eat a single chicken wing. Instead I take a swig of beer.
The jukebox plays. "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. "I want to fuck you like an animal." I can only remember how many times I used that line, long before Trent Reznor came up with it.
The jukebox plays Aerosmith, "Crazy." "Baby, I go crazy, I go crazy for you, baby. What should I do? I feel like the color blue."
I look at her through the sunglasses I'm wearing inside the bar. God, it was seven years together. How did I fuck it all up? I still missed her, especially with all this going on, even if just for a hug. She hung tough with me through the treatments, but still I felt so alone. Like I was already dead.
The jukebox plays the band Cake doing a cover of the disco hit "I Will Survive." It's too much for me. I have to walk outside into the misty rain -- hell, it's been raining for the last month -- and light up a cigarette, throat cancer be damned.
"What's wrong?" she asked me as she followed me out. "Are you crying?"
I turned my head away. I never allowed anyone to see me cry. Lord knows I have caused enough tears during my lifetime.
"No, just the songs playing, and I remember all the good times we've had here."
"It's been a good life. It was a good time. We had a good time."
I still loved her so much and hated the fact that I was dying.
A good time, indeed. A good life. And nothing that I would ever change about it.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Oct. 11, 2011|