Johnny Smiled Slowly
My God's a good guy
My God is good
My God's a good guy
And his name is Ronnie Wood
- Jock Scot, Good God
“You’d better bring money,” the wife said to me over the phone last Saturday night.
It was an uncharacteristically capitalist thing to say, considering that she was calling from the Billy Bragg concert down the street.
I’d dropped her off at the lobby of the theatre a couple hours before to see if she could luck into a good seat. A gang of young ruffians, one in a Pogues tee, came to her rescue with something in the sixth row on the side.
Now I was being pressed back into taxi service, along with a touch of concierge. The mugs Billy had been flogging all night had disappeared, but there were a few other odds and ends that seemed attractive.
When I got to the lobby, I found her in a line of fans awaiting an autograph. An older gent was busy shepherding a young man into the line beside him.
“He’s my son,” he said by way of explanation.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He doesn’t look like you.”
I was then quickly instructed in the ways of taking a photo with a cell phone. The wife had decided to use her moment with him to discuss the recent Pogues shows she’d seen in NY.
“How were they?” asked Mr. Bragg. “I heard good things about them. How was Shane?”
The wife explained that he seemed to be in fighting trim.
“That’s good, good…” he said as he signed her program. He paused, then, and said, “You know…if you’d told me years ago that Joe Strummer would be gone and Shane would still be around…” He let the implication evaporate into the air.
“I know,” said the wife.
I then tried to take a photo of the pair as Billy treated us to his version of Mary Had A Little Lamb sung to the tune of House Of The Rising Sun (try it, it works).
“…and Shane would still be around.” Indeed. There’s no justice or sense to the genetic lottery, is there?
If there were, we’d be talking about how old Keith Richards would have been had he lived to see the 21st Century.
How they go, how they go, Charles Bukowski once wrote. All the ones you thought would never go.
Just prior to this scene, I’d been home in front of the computer working on a MySpace site that would be dedicated to musical projects. More specifically, a show I’m planning for this September in connection with this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
A post-9/11 sense of my own mortality had been partly responsible for my putting renewed energy into creating music. Time had begun to feel painfully short.
I sat, as I had the past few evenings, browsing through the possible “friends” I could add to the site and wandered into the websites of folks I’d lost track of. John Robb’s Goldblade was just finishing up a swing through the western U.S. with GBH, as it turned out, while Nikki Sudden (ex-Swell Maps) appeared to be visiting NY and was scheduled to give a free show at the Knitting Factory on Saturday night.
I thought briefly about going but quickly dismissed the idea. Then I decided I had to pick either a Swell Maps page or a Sudden page to add to mine, as both seemed a little excessive.
I picked the Swell Maps page.
I was on a break today at work when I called the wife. She sounded troubled.
“Nikki Sudden…” she said.
Oh, god. I missed a Philly show, didn’t I?
“Nikki Sudden is dead,” she finished. “You didn’t know?”
It turned out that she had seen the history list of recent websites I’d visited, and with Nikki Sudden’s name coming up so much she figured I already knew. I explained about the MySpace page research.
“Oh…God, I’m so sorry you had to hear it over the phone!” she said.
Apparently, sometime between the end of that free Saturday night show and Sunday, Nikki Sudden passed away at the age of 49. His brother and Swell Maps co-founder Epic Soundtracks died in 1997. Eerily, Sudden had posted a remembrance of his late brother on his official site just last Thursday night.
Swell Maps had been one of my ideals of what a band should be. They were as DIY as it was possible to get, recording in their bedrooms and cheap studios, and breaking any number of stylistic and musical rules in the process.
Sudden, besotted with Marc Bolan, the Stones, and Ronnie Wood, was damned if he was going to be anything but a rock star and, in his way, he was. He plunged into a prosperous solo career after the demise of the Maps and his catalogue had recently been the object of a massive reissue program by the Secretly Canadian label.
His influence, on bands from R.E.M. to Sonic Youth, has been recorded elsewhere. My favorite album of his was Waiting On Egypt, a collection that could have passed for a Swell Maps album but which began to point the way towards the music to come. It has some of the best T. Rex song titles Bolan never wrote (Opium Pits) and even the errant Stones cover:
Here I am, all alone
and all dressed up to kill
But I’d much rather be with the boys than be with you
I got to meet him a few years ago at an instore. He signed some old LP’s and posed for pictures with me.
I’ve spent all my money
My pockets are so empty
My gold’s all gone
My gold’s all gone
I’ve spent it all
Staggered, I went back to my desk and listened to Egypt, which happened to be in my current rotation.
I’m all alone, but
I’m not giving up
Sons come and go, William Saroyan once wrote, but Mothers hang in forever. Of course, he wasn’t referring only to the genealogical meaning of the word Mother.
Sometime during the last hours of Nikki Sudden’s life, Billy Bragg was musing aloud about the strangeness of fate and the capriciousness of its choices.
Which brings us back to the cell phone camera.
“Let me see, let me see,” the wife said excitedly as we strolled out.
The results, not unexpectedly given the circumstances, were dark and blurry as usual.