By NALINI JONES
for Cliff and Pete
Somewhere in the attic I have letters from Bud, typed on a real typewriter and sent to me when I was in high school and college. The letters chronicle the adventures of his terrier and on occasion were written in the dog’s voice. The dog used to wait for his chance—when the man was sleeping or when he took up his guitar in a corner of a room with a bottle and some cigarettes, maybe the beginnings of a tune. Then the dog would leap to the typewriter and start tapping the keys with small white paws.
Many of these letters were signed Bud, by the dog. My friend did not really have a dog at that time, and even the dog he imagined had some layers to him, some secrets. The imaginary dog’s real name, for example, was Rico; only his friends knew him as Bud. My friend wasn’t really named Bud either. But both were Red Sox fans, a point that is emphasized in the letters. It was well known by man and dog that my father was a Red Sox fan too.
Surely I could find these letters, if I looked, tucked into stacks that are sorted by year or gathered into a bundle of Bud correspondence, tied, perhaps, with ribbon or string. They began when I was thirteen and Bud was in his thirties, shortly after I heard him play three songs in a revolving-door set with some other folk musicians, old and new. My dad was one of the older ones; he no longer played anymore, except to us, his family. Bud was one of the new ones. I can’t believe I pissed my twenties away, he sang. When the concert ended, he went back to writing songs, and I went back to middle school, and we wrote letters across those twenties. He couldn’t believe his were over; I didn’t think mine would ever arrive.
There was a lot for a bookish kid to admire in those letters. I was delighted by the connection between Rico’s paws on the keys and the literary efforts of Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat. Had Bud read those poems too? I never asked. I think I assumed he’d read everything, knew it all. Descriptions of Rico, drunk with sensation at the wheel of Bud’s car in Harvard Square, seemed uncannily like Flush first encountering the scents of Italy. But if the idea of Bud curling up with Virginia Woolf strained credulity, it was easy to associate Rico’s doleful wisdom with the giants of Russian letters, whose staunch sadness found an unlikely echo in Red Sox fans of the early 1980s. I also appreciated the dog’s Yankee spirit, his get-rich-quick schemes, his plans to support the struggling folk singer by conceiving of celebrity endorsements for him. Bud obliged. “Vodka,” he liked to intone. “It’s not just for breakfast anymore.”
Best of all, the deft wit of the letters was a beacon of possibility in my world, where humor was broadly understood as a collective agreement to laugh when, light as a feather, stiff as a board, someone at Peggy Ryan’s slumber party could be induced to kiss a pillow, or when our chorus teacher, Miss Luttenegger, was suspected to have a boyfriend.
Since I myself was never the subject of such speculation, I was painfully alive to the generosity of Bud’s letters. I knew who I was, with my stick limbs and thin hair and all the wrong clothes, or the wrong way of wearing them. Why did he befriend me? Did he make a habit of being nice to kids? Was he trying to keep in touch with my dad, who would soon bring back the big Festival? Was he already lonely? I just set off down the road alone, but it’s always gone that way.
“He liked smart people,” his friend C. said. “He liked to surround himself with people who were smart. He did it all his life.”
But I have no idea what a kid could have written that was smart enough to interest him. I think what mattered most to Bud is that I liked him. He didn’t have to wonder if I’d write back. I was a spindly little bookworm with glasses. What else did I have going on?
My guess is that Bud also appreciated what I already knew. I’d spent years trailing after my father, backstage at stadium shows, in the wings of jazz festivals, folded into poky corridors of folk clubs. I knew what Bud and his friends were trying to do, and I knew it wasn’t easy: the long hours, the bad meals, the hard chairs when you needed to nap, the hand towels when you needed a shower. They worked hard, and their work was fractured into pieces so contradictory that it sometimes seemed crazy to try to gather all those jangling parts back together into a single person. They had to make money, and they had to make art. They had to cope with isolation on the road and with the constant churning upheaval of meeting new people. They had to find solitude to write, and they had to court audiences to play. They had to win fans, and they had to hold fans at bay. They had to navigate a ruthless business, and they could not afford to seem too slick. They had to write and they had to sing and they had to play an instrument and they had to record. They had to find a way to be funny while they tuned their guitars. And their ambitions had to be crafted as carefully as their songs: a better advance, a major label, some radio play—maybe a song that caught the public unaware. They were dreamers who couldn’t dream too big.
When I met Bud and his friends, they were all surge and courage. They were smart and funny and present; they wrote with care and passion; they had the beginnings of a following. They weren’t all going to be stars, but their endeavor moved me, the same way I was moved by the Ray Charles Band, arriving on a low-budget bus hours before Ray himself swept onsite in a town car. I’d been raised to champion the ones who weren’t stars. I was ready to make Bud a hero.
Bud was in no state to object. Confidentially, Rico conceded, there was a downside to Bud’s impending divorce—it darkened the mood, though he himself, a spry terrier, was too lively to succumb to low spirits. And Bud was not the only one who’d suffer. Sure, she’s the one walking out the door, he conceded. But you don’t think she’ll miss the big time? The tuning, the trail mix, the single-drink ticket. Once you get used to that life, it’s hard to give up. In the end, Rico took the long view, a managerial squint in his terrier eye. Songs were gathering like storm clouds, and everyone knew the power of a divorce album.
I’d met the first wife. I sat next to her at a concert once and watched her face when Bud sang, Hey, my little darlin’—a song for her. Round and round and round we go. It was as lively as Bud could be, but his wife didn’t move; she didn’t even smile. Why? I wondered, feeling she ought to. She sat, hardening like poured cement, and the song ended. A new one began. I stopped thinking about her. And if it hadn’t-a been for whiskey, I never would’ve made it through our first few years. I was a kid, not always alive to subtext. It didn’t occur to me she was in that song too.
Bud’s friend P. has unearthed the letters Bud wrote to him, letters in the voices of two old blues guys, Lemon and Bud (in which P. is Bud and Bud is Lemon). P. transcribed the whole correspondence, scathingly irreverent, and forwarded me a copy. P. said, “I don’t think I can really show this to people.”
I have not yet gone into the attic to look for my bundle of letters, undoubtedly preserved—among the yearbooks and old festival programs—through the nine times I have moved since our correspondence began. I have not unearthed the photos of Bud singing the first song at my wedding, which someone has surely recorded, though we were not the types to hire a videographer. And maybe this is that town where there’s no goodbye. I have not yet erased Bud’s number from my phone.
For several months in 2011, I could scroll down a list of archived numbers on my cell phone and find proof that on July 5, I received a call while walking my dog in a wooded park. I checked the caller ID and nearly let it go to voicemail. Was I prepared? Could I absorb the requisite grief? Had I figured out a stance? I picked up and heard my name stretched out as though across years. “Nah-linn-eee. If my calculations are correct, you’re forty today.”
I was. I stood in the woods and thought: This phone call is a miracle.
How did he remember? It was not an idle question. I was not marveling at a pleasant surprise. My question was literal: How, as a matter of mind and body, could he possibly have remembered? You know I don’t drink as much as they think I do, sang Bud in the eighties. Twenty-five years later, he’d been coaxed at least twice into rehab. Maybe more; I forgot the stints that didn’t stick. Only the most recent time ever mattered, the time that might have worked.
He remembered lyrics, riffs, reviews, favorite moments on Count Basie recordings, various grudges, old jokes. He remembered to write songs in keys that come easy to the trombone or bass clarinet, instruments he was learning after days spent composing on guitar. He remembered what he needed to. My birthday? Maybe it was the social networking site I assumed he never checked. Maybe E. saw a birthday pop-up and alerted him. E. was his second wife, best friend, and manager, a woman Bud’s mother still considers her daughter-in-law.
I thanked him for calling, kept the tears from my voice, listened carefully. Were his words clear? Did his voice seem frail? Was he making sense? Did he sound the way he had sounded in the spring: big talk, big plans, everything heartbreak big? Talking to Bud was a test of faith and endurance. It could feel like talking to the Wizard of Oz, like being the reluctant tethers on the hot air balloon and feeling the ropes fray and break as the balloon sails away. I feel like a captain who knows no fear.
But this day was different. Bud seemed grounded. He had new songs, he reported, enough for two albums. He had a new book, accepted by a publisher in France. “Not here,” he added laconically, the sort of thing he would not have admitted in the spring. “It wasn’t really right for F.” F. was the editor of Bud’s 1996 novel, a famous editor, an editor whose very interest constituted unparalleled affirmation to Bud.
“Sorry I haven’t been in touch. I’ve been so busy writing these songs, I just couldn’t stop.”
I told him not to worry. I told him I liked to think of him in a snug cabin up north, writing songs while the snow fell. He said, “Actually, I had a tough winter.”
He had run out of money. He sold some of the instruments he’d collected to pay for heat, he told me, and I pictured him chopping up guitars for firewood. I imagined how quickly they’d be consumed, the meager flames. Everything slips through these cold fingers.
“But things are better now, everything’s getting better.” He was writing again; did he mention the new songs? He wasn’t drinking; he felt stronger, sharper. Just a little wine with dinner. Everybody does that.
I looped around the park for over an hour, listening to Bud. I felt a careful gladness. He was talking about his health; he wasn’t hiding the business about the heat and instruments. He was telling me the truth. This was the way Bud had taught me to hope, one small block on top of another. You didn’t build too high, ask too much. You kept in mind the structural damage. The last few times I’d seen Bud, he was thinner than hospice broth. The bony plate of his forehead was skeletal. “He has a face like a Civil War soldier,” my brother said once.
Later, it occurred to me to consider what I didn’t say to him. I didn’t ask why he hadn’t come to me for help. I didn’t say that of course my husband and I would have covered his heating bill. I never once said, “I’m not sure alcoholics can enjoy some wine with dinner.”
Instead I told him I couldn’t wait to hear the songs. I said that several times, offered it like a promise. A couple weeks later, the news came that Bud died in a hotel room in Georgia, a room filled with bottles. “Maybe there was a sale,” said E. It was the sort of joke Bud used to like, a tired-smile joke, a joke that says, We can’t change much in this world, but we’ve got a little snap in us. “Don’t judge a life by the way it ends,” sang his friend G.
How did it end? I wondered. Had he done it on purpose? Was he so far gone that he knew another few drinks would settle him? Or was that night like a thousand others, until the moment his heart gave out? Did he just fall to sleep? Did he struggle for breath? Did he know what was happening? Did he make a sound? Was he afraid? If only Rico had been there, tapping a few last remarks. If only Bud hadn’t been alone.
Standing outside a hotel, spotlit beneath a streetlamp, Bud had autographed his first album for me. I was thirteen, and it was an actual record. Bud’s face in the picture looks soft and young and startled, a deer’s face, more doe than stag. He wears a checked lumberjack coat that seems big in the shoulders.
While signing, his pen dried out. It was a red permanent marker. He patted his pockets, searching for another, and the autograph continues in green. “Christmas colors,” Bud drawled, and I laughed. It was funny, funnier than it seems now. Maybe because it was a hot night in a beach town. Or because none of the people in Bud’s songs were likely to have nice Christmases. It could have been the way he teased out the words with a little lift at the end, as though he had planned this effect all along, and since we both knew better, we already had a private joke. Maybe it was because I was a kid and he was a grownup who wasn’t treating me like a kid. Maybe anything he said would have been genius, hilarious, the cleverest damn thing you ever heard.
A few years later, my father and I decided to visit Bud and other songwriters we knew at a nearby festival. We arrived the night before at a remote hotel, where the artists had gathered in a room off the lobby, sitting in a circle and playing. When I walked through the door, Bud hailed me like I was the rhythm section they’d all been waiting on and tossed me a beer bottle.
I was sixteen. My whole life depended on whether I caught it. Dad walked in right behind me.
“Hey,” he said, to the guy who just threw his kid a Rolling Rock.
“Don’t worry,” Bud told him. “We got more.” This made Dad laugh, and he watched how, after the first dramatic swig, I put my bottle to the side. He quietly drank it for me. A little while later Bud looked up from his guitar to smile at me and ask if I needed another.
“I’m cool,” I told him. This would never be true. What I did feel was a perfect radiant warmth, basking in the spill of attention from Bud and in the generosity of my father’s inattention. He had stayed in his own conversation, not even turning his head.
“Water in the cooler,” Dad nudged me a minute later.It was a room in which everything seemed easy: drinking or not drinking, being a kid or being grown. Even writing: new songs seemed to tumble from Bud’s guitar.
“Here’s another,” he said again and again. “What do you think?”
There is no way to express how young and fresh he was. He had played Symphony Hall, Carnegie, the big Festival. I thought what most of us thought when we heard his songs: that the future rolled out before him like a good stretch of road.
In 1989, Windham Hill put together Legacy: A Collection of New Folk Music. It was their idea of the perfect gamble, an anthology of songs from a select crop of promising songwriters—surely one of them would hit it big. On the album cover, in a grid of thumbnail photos of each artist, Bud cocks his head above a handwritten sign that says, I WROTE ALL OF G.’S SONGS. He looks like the guy who was dragged by the ear to Sister Mary Principal’s office when he was a kid.
What sort of boy had he been? He was born November 25, 1951, in Hartford, Connecticut, where his family was spending Thanksgiving; a beautiful baby, his mother recalls. Bud was the one in the middle, she says simply— always ahead of one brother and behind the other. He grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts. For a time he went to Catholic school. He was a catcher in Little League. When he was thirteen, he picked up a guitar and began teaching himself to play. In high school, at the height of the Cambridge folk scene, he used to spend his afternoons in Harvard Square scouring the record shops and listening to the folk and blues players in the clubs and coffee shops.
Bud’s official website offers nothing about his childhood; the implication is that his life began with his songs. But the songs only began with the life he made for himself after he left college at nineteen. He crossed the country to work on an Alaskan fishing boat, dipped down to California for a time as a journeyman musician, and eventually made his way to New Hampshire, where he took a job in a local mill. Sometimes he tended bar, where the pay was low but the drinks were free.
Bud’s first album is a record of these times, part travelogue, part fiction. He wrote what he’d seen in the voices of deckhands and veterans, cowboys and roustabouts. They take me for a native here, says one of his characters, a cargo boat captain far from home. Bud must have known how that felt. Just a few paces out of boyhood, he’d already made himself into someone new.
In the spring of my senior year of high school, within a few months of the Legacy album release, I went to see the college where I’d just been accepted. It was an official visit—a night in the dorm, classes, activities, the campus keg party for a glimpse of paradise. And lo and behold, Bud was playing at the student center, where a folk series had taken root.
My host, a first-year student, led me to the concert and stood in the doorway for the first song. Her gaze widened when Bud started to sing. His voice took people by surprise—the rusted timbre, the croaking vowels—like something dragged up from the bottom of a pond and into the warm night air. You didn’t expect it, and it turned some people away. It seemed to belong to a ranch hand getting on in years, not the son of an insurance executive. Bud was slight. His jeans bunched at the top of his work boots. He had thin hair and slender fingers with long nails on his right hand, good for picking. He spoke with a mild New England accent, nothing more. But his singing voice was distilled to something far more potent, rough as grain liquor. Not everyone could swallow it.
The girl waited for the first song to end before she handed me a room key and said I could find her later at the keg party. I liked the briskness with which she set off: no questions, no judgments, no tendrils of guilt over what we ought to be doing together. I stood in the back, fingering the dorm key and feeling the night swept clean before me. I could do exactly as I liked. I could listen to songs about dead mill towns without trying to explain their appeal.
I doubt I could have explained exactly what drew me to Bud’s music. I’d have to begin with nights in our house when Dad and his friends took out their guitars. They sang late into the night, whole songs and snatches of songs, and songs with stories climbing through them. Stories I’d heard my whole life: trainmen and hobos, sweet girls and gamblers, bandits and gypsies, soldiers and whores. Chain gangs, union maids, migrant workers, the innocent dead. Scaffolds and crossroads. Ships at sea. I was accustomed to a high lonesome sound, the low-down blues, a certain kind of constant sorrow.
Bud’s songs grew out of those roots. Early on, he’d fallen in love with the Mississippi Delta blues, and those phrasings and time signatures marked his playing all his career. He sang about ramblers and drifters, the Jack of Diamonds, Miss Downtown. But Bud recorded his first album in 1984. By then Bob Dylan had a rock band; folk was in his round-cheeked past. Joan Baez had passed straight from a beautiful barefoot girl to an icon, a legend, huge in Europe—no one you’d hear on mainstream American radio anymore.
For a handful of years in the sixties, you might have. In an era of power to the people, certain strains of folk music shot up the charts—songs of peace and protest, the Kumbaya folk that would be lampooned in the cynical decades to come. Actually folk in America is made of sterner stuff: the Anglo-Irish music that made the long journey across the sea to take root in new soil, and the African Amercian country-blues that signaled a crucial shift in emphasis from the world to come (in gospel music) to the world of the present-day, the world of regular folk. These were distinct traditions, but they all championed the lives and trials of common people. A Scottish ballad might survive in one form off the rugged coast of Cape Breton and in a form entirely different on a sagging porch in Appalachia; yet both share a kind of integrity with a blues tune from the Mississippi Delta, or a chain gang lament, or a song from the cattle trail: simply put, they revealed the lives of the people who sang them, in their own words and cadences.
The connections among these different strains intrigued folklorists such as John Lomax (and later his son Alan), who spent the first decades of the twentieth century traveling from town to town to collect and preserve the forms that had taken root all over the country. By the thirties, artists such as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, and Pete Seeger were swapping songs and styles. Set alongside one another, individual struggles, or the struggles of any one particular community, began to take on new resonance in the larger context of American folk music. The painful intimacy of Mississippi John Hurt losing his hometown in “Avalon Blues,” for example, is all the more powerful for its affinity to the plight of the migrant workers in Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty.” And the resolve of Guthrie’s final lines, in which the wanderers lay claim to a home no law will ever recognize—“Our pastures of plenty must always be free”—suggests another possibility for the man cast out from Avalon.
It’s this movement toward the collective, and even the subversive, that gave folk music its power during the booms in the thirties and the sixties—this was music ideally suited to the purpose of assembly. Music was a way to galvanize the Dust Bowl refugees, to encourage unions, to help rally for peace and civil rights.
But by the eighties, when Bud was part of what music writers called “a folk resurgence,” no one was assembling. No one was subversive. It was, after all, an insular era. The songs were still narrative, but the stories seemed crafted, more observed than lived. They were sometimes about common folk, but the common folk weren’t coming out to hear them. A lot of songwriters turned inward, away from the communal in favor of the intensely personal. A few still wrote political songs, but no one expected them to catch on.
Bud was after something different. He was interested in figuring out one small truth at a time. What happened when the mill closed down? Why wouldn’t a lonely man go home to his wife? Who do you call when there’s no one left to call? I found these stories irresistible. There were codes to crack—why would the truck driver open the valve of his tank and keep on driving?—and if you could crack them, you understood one more thing about a person you might have walked right past without knowing. If you listened hard enough, you could stand inside those songs, among those people. You became a grown-up in Bud’s motel rooms and freight yards and mills. You suffered losses that the kid in you could hardly name. You learned you could survive them.
I couldn’t have said a word of that to the first-year student on her way to the keg party. I admired her, but I was relieved to be rid of her. Once she had gone, I could drink in the raw tang of Bud’s songs without feeling self-conscious. I knew what I was supposed to want; I knew there was a kind of shame in being seventeen and not choosing free beer and dance music. I’d catch up with her after the concert, I told myself. But when Bud finished his set, he said, “Let’s get outta here. G. is playing at the Horse,” and I never thought of refusing.
While fans lingered to ask about one song or another, Bud packed up his guitar, and I stood off to the side, tamping down unruly questions: Would he bring me back to the dorm? How late was too late? Would the girl be annoyed? I didn’t ask.
We got in his car and drove to the club in the next town. G.’s set had ended, and everyone had gathered at P.’s house. Bud was hailed as a hero. I swept in behind him, thinking: This is life, my real life, starting now. I found G. in the kitchen, peering into P.’s cupboards. “Are you hungry too?” he asked with gentle courtesy. He made a pot of pasta. It was nearly midnight when we ate it, and I thought: This is what adults do. They eat whenever they’re hungry.
“You okay in there, kid?” Bud called from the doorway.
I thought of the keg party where I would have felt stiff and awkward, giving my name again and again, spelling it out over cups of yellow beer. In the living room at P.’s, they were sitting around, playing blues. I had a crush on C. that would last nearly a decade. “I’m good,” I told Bud. I wondered briefly: Could he drive? How would I get back? But I was strangely unconcerned. I thought: This is where I belong.
There came a point that night when I considered taking the bus back to campus. Already I didn’t know how to thank Bud for bringing me into the world of this party, warm on a cool spring night, spilling over with music and great waves of laughter. Every room hosted a conversation I wanted to overhear. I didn’t want to be the reason Bud had to leave. To ask for a ride would have mortified me.
But Bud had a way of sparing me all the things I didn’t want to say. Just as I began to wonder about the longevity of keg parties, there came a lull in the singing and Bud stood up, a long slow motion. “We’d better hit it,” he said and smiled.
I’d been properly trained—high school assemblies and driver’s ed films that made you flinch. I lived in a town of winding Connecticut roads, where kids, on occasion, died. I’d done my part as the designated driver, ferrying friends home from parties featuring obliteration in diet-soda cans.
No matter. I floated to Bud’s car, too grateful to register any such warnings. We made it back, as I knew we would. I knew this because I was seventeen and nothing was going to happen to me. I knew this because I was with Bud and he always took care of me. He was still steady, still cracking jokes.
And I treated Bud the way I’d learned to treat all musicians. I deferred. By the time I got in his car that night, I’d been running backstage hospitality at festivals for a few years. I went to liquor stores with hand trucks and copies of contract riders that Dad and I had marked up together: what we would buy and what we wouldn’t. You didn’t want to overbuy, but you didn’t want to run out either. You wanted to keep people happy but not too happy. You didn’t exactly have a budget, but you needed to keep your spending low. All that guesswork felt like a game. A rainy forecast meant less cold beer, a female vocalist meant more white wine, a brass band from New Orleans meant volume. A two-day festival meant you could make a fortress of beer cases in the catering room, with a box or two of the expensive stuff behind it.
When I walked into a liquor store with a sheaf of artist riders in my hand, I was generally free to buy what I needed without too many questions, although this teenaged version of the American dream was wasted on me. I had no taste for beer. Wine was for middle-aged dinner parties. In high school I charted a zigzag course between volunteering as designated driver and staging intermittent displays of swift shots of straight vodka. I could manage vodka because it was colorless, odorless. And every time I took my requisite swig, I heard Bud’s voice remind me, “It’s not just for breakfast anymore.” The ultimate inside joke, an interior Bud rolling his eyes to make me laugh in a room where cheerleaders menaced and even the smart boys just blinked at me before looking away.
By then I knew drinking was not solely about the drink itself. I knew the rare moments when I anteed up were performances. I knew that to Herbie Hancock, the right bottle of champagne meant respect. I knew that Cassandra Wilson offered a ritual libation of Myers’s Dark Rum before she sang. I knew that a Buddy Guy set ran on a bottle of Hennessy X.O, essential as an amp or monitor.
This didn’t worry me. After all, excess was not in the budget. We never provided an endless river of booze. We cut off band members when they’d blown through their allotment and regularly annoyed others by refusing to stock their buses. “Lady, you are cold cheap,” one musician grumbled when I delivered the bad news.
Yet in everything we do backstage is the understanding that it is hard work to be an artist. It is hard work to travel and hard work to wait at home, putting together the next tour. It is hard to learn who to be onstage, a version of yourself meant for public consumption. It is hard to finish a set, then go sell albums at the merch table, then count the remainders back in, then settle the box office, then load up the car in the alley, then drive as long as you can stay awake to the next motel. It is hard to know when to eat—after the sound check but not too close to the show; or in the two hours when artist catering is set up (chicken again); or after the show, when all the good places are closed. It is hard to eat in the bad places, night after night. It is hard to do laundry on the road. It is hard to drive, hard to fly, hard to leave families, hard to have none. It’s fourteen hours til the next town, but I got a bottle in my bag, and I learned to sleep while sitting down.
Not all musicians are drinkers; far from it. But we don’t judge the ones who are. Some artists make concessions—terrible concessions, dangerous concessions—because that’s the only way they know how to make their art. It’s our job to help create a place for that art, not to interfere.
I was not working with Bud the night he drove me back to campus. I could have asked for the car keys and offered to drive. But I had trouble parsing it all out—the friend, the musician, the drinker, the hero. They were woven together so tightly that even Bud probably believed that he couldn’t be one without another. He drank because he was a songwriter who wrote songs about drinking because he drank.
The roads were nearly empty. Driving felt like swimming in a soft dark lake. The night outside was swift and chill, flowing into the car when Bud cracked a window to smoke. From the fields beyond the town and campus came a faint odor of manure, not unpleasant. I was not remotely afraid. I did not want the ride to end.
My college years were when I saw Bud the most. His career was in full flower. He and E. were so in love that they leaned against each other constantly. When Bud went to the bar for another, it was a shock to see them each freestanding. His drinking still felt a little bit charming, a little bit artful, like onstage patter.
Besides, you didn’t worry about a guy who was in his prime. Legacy had come and gone; no one, the record company types would say, had “popped.” But by then Bud’s latest album had been nominated for a Grammy. He had a press kit full of four-star reviews in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly. He’d earned praise from all the major music critics. The Village Voice called him “one of the most consistently literate singer/songwriters working,” and he was offered a book contract on the strength of his songs.
Still, he made it his business to look out for me. “Time to meet this kid,” he said in a mock billy-goat-gruff voice when I told him about my first boyfriend. The four of us went out to a bar and talked books and music; Bud bought my friend a beer. At the end of the night, we were standing outside with the entwined Bud and E., not quite saying good-bye, when a condom dropped out of my boyfriend’s pocket. Bud’s eyes flicked down quick as a blade, then up again to my boyfriend’s face. “Well, now,” he said sternly. “Don’t you think you better pick it up?” Then he flashed me a look I recognized, a smile hidden in his eyes. My boyfriend was mortified; I knew it was safe to laugh.
The next day E. called. “So I’m just calling to make sure you know about orgasms?” She was one of those women who could laugh and laugh and still be earnest. “This is important, what I’m telling you. Because, listen: They’re not just for him.”
A parochial-school education had not prepared me for this conversation. I asked if Bud knew she was calling.
“He really wants to make sure you’re okay,” she said. “He thinks of you as a little sister.”
After college, I didn’t see Bud as much. His albums tapered off a bit from the furious pace of the early nineties. He was writing a novel for Knopf. We stayed in touch with e-mails and letters; I went to hear him whenever he played nearby.
By then the folk-club songwriters of ten years before were losing momentum. Two or three broke loose, mostly women who crossed over to pop and went soaring past Bud like errant balloons. He did his best not to let it sour him, but it was hard. He had to watch them drifting up on simple chords, too many words—what made them deserving? They hadn’t been compared to Richard Ford or Raymond Carver. They didn’t know squat about Willie Dixon. There were days when the injustice of it lodged in his mouth like a fishhook. On other days, better days, Bud told stories about when they opened for him or remembered the times they asked his advice. Those days, he could be glad for them.
But he would never be famous, not the way he wanted. Nor did it happen to most of the songwriters who were his friends. Artists who once had agents and managers began to book themselves. Artists who once had fully routed tours began to play house concerts. Artists who once made distribution deals figured they’d do better selling out of the trunks of their cars. Artists who once talked about major labels just talked about keeping on. Most of what they’d learned about the music business washed away too, records replaced by CDs, CDs by digital files, record labels by home studios.
Still, Bud was “one of the best songwriters we have” (Rolling Stone). He should have taken his place in the pantheon of American music with other master songwriters: John Prine, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark. Or maybe he was more like Townes Van Zandt.
“I ought to stop drinking, but I don’t know why,” sang his friend T., a song he wrote in Bud’s voice, after Bud had died. Bud had worked long years to make it big, squinting down the tracks for a glimpse of that train. It came closer and closer. So when it hurtled right past him, he had to remake him-self again.
Bud was losing too much weight, I noticed at my wedding. Some of us looked at him a little too long, and our looks seemed to hang around his shoulders in a worried haze. Still he had come; he played one of his songs for our first dance. And he was animated about his work. He was putting together an album of Mississippi John Hurt songs. E. stood right beside him, fiercely loyal and raving about the project, her arm latched around his waist.
A couple of years ticked past. Bud and E. split—they were still best friends, he assured me. But Bud was living alone, working on another divorce album. “I’m just suffering from the late winter slugs,” he wrote in 2000. He’d just come back from California. “The Grammys were fun and boring. Lotsa room service. How many times can you watch Jonathan Tesh walk past you?” That was it—nothing more on that particular disappointment. Bud had a gift for deflection. He was so funny, so smart, so irreverent that you didn’t quite believe how, the last time you set eyes on him, he was burning himself out like a cigarette.
He told me I didn’t need to worry; good things were ahead. “The Red Sox are happening. I look to the future.” He had taken up cornet and jazz clarinet. He was considering a fly-fishing trip to Poland. “Gimme dat vodka,” he wrote. “I’m writing nothing but polkas now.” He was still my good friend, still something like a hero, only dearer, sweeter, older, sadder. He was about to try to stop drinking, and I was determined to believe he could.
In the meantime, he took walks in the early-morning dark, laid down tracks for the new songs, dropped by the coffeehouse in his hometown when good songwriters passed through. Ferron was coming, he reported. He was headed out to see her. “I may be the only man there,” he continued, “but I’m going dressed as a lesbian. Where are my suspenders?”
I was not Bud’s little sister. But if you play that part long enough, certain things are kept from you. There are certain things you aren’t really supposed to know.
By then, Bud’s drinking had crossed over. You didn’t think of his songs anymore when he poured himself another; you thought of his liver. You thought about health insurance. You wondered how many times a man could try rehab, if the withdrawal alone might prove too much of a shock. You made yourself crazy, sifting back through all the years you knew him, trying to find the moment when something might have changed. Between this album and that one? After the first Grammy nomination but before the second? Maybe if, one of those times, he’d won? Bud was past the moment, whenever it had come. His future seemed jaundiced.
“I should have said something a long time ago,” I told C. once, in a dark period before Bud tried another round of rehab. “Just to try. Just in case.”
“He wouldn’t have listened,” C. said flatly. I knew he was right, but that didn’t seem entirely the point. The point was candor. The point was courage. Do people listen to their little sisters? I doubted Bud could. But I never tried. Even after I grew up, in Bud’s company, I preferred not to be more than the kid he had noticed, a kid who would never risk offending him.
“I’ve begged him to stop,” C. said. “It doesn’t do any good. There’s a whole lot more going on there. You know, don’t you?”
I didn’t, and he told me.
In decades of knowing him, I never once saw Bud’s knees. In summer and winter, he wore work boots and jeans. A flannel shirt, or a plain white oxford with a jacket; sometimes a T-shirt beneath the jacket. He looked like an offbeat English professor, everyone’s favorite.
I saw his elbows on rare occasions. But the knees? Pale, surely. Then I founder. I can’t imagine the sort of women’s clothes Bud favored. I can’t get rid of the work boots. The best I can do is Bud trudging through the snow in a field at the foot of the mountains, maybe in one of those long skirts you see a lot in Western Massachusetts, his boots kicking up beneath the bedraggled hems. But that’s all wrong, of course. He wasn’t some hippie.
He wasn’t some doll. Take off the long skirt, try a blue dress, try a print.Fold down the tabs of the cut-out clothes and lift them again. Try a red gown, ankle-length. It’s cold out there, bone cold. Give him a bolero jacket, press a shawl over his thin paper shoulders. When he’s all dressed up, call him Bess.
Maybe he is more himself when he is Bess. I don’t know. He never spoke to me about it.
This is just one thing about him. There are dozens of others I could tell you: he was a fly-fisherman. He liked to hunt. He was intensely competitive. He never forgot a slight. He listened to jazz. Did Bess like hunting and fishing too? Was something of Bud lost when he was Bess, and something of Bess lost when he was Bud? Picture him in the corner of his cabin, hunched over a cigarette, a glass full of ice and amber at his feet. He is building a song bit by bit, adding words, planing others away. Was he whittling himself as well? Carving Bess out of Bud, or Bud out of Bess? There is no dog, really; no one to tell me, no one to tap a letter from this remote place. The dog is lost.
What do we owe our friends? Are we called upon to keep secrets we were never supposed to know? I could have driven up north one day, knocked on Bud’s door, and said, “Hey, all this is fine with me.” I could have said, “Let’s go shopping.” I never did. I worried I’d be taking something essential from him: the chance to tell me in his own way.
Others were free to reassure him. For years C. encouraged him: shout it from the rooftops, run down the street in a ball gown, do whatever you need to do. “I just wanted him to stop drinking,” he said.
But it’s dangerous out there—a song Bud meant as a joke. A tired-smile joke, as I hear it now. No matter what his friends said, no matter how dearly or fiercely we loved him, the world is dangerous for men like Bud and women like Bess. Bud wanted to try to live as Bess, C. told me near the end. But Bess could not have made a living. She would have been in her sixties, not trained for much but being Bud onstage. A woman singing in Bud’s granite voice.
There are things in this life a man just does not get to choose. He couldn’t drink it away, couldn’t write it away, couldn’t love it away. He did his best, didn’t he? He did his goddamned best. But he must have felt no one could help him. It couldn’t be edited away, reviewed away, awarded away. He’d made and remade himself a half dozen different ways; maybe never the way that felt right to him. So sing another song; write another letter. He must have been so tired.
I decided Bud had pieced together something fragile and intricate, a framework to keep what he could at bay. The drink that was killing him was also bracing him. So I stayed where he had put me, outside that strange and delicate apparatus. I didn’t pound on the door, didn’t make a lot of wind. I might have been mistaken, but I could see he believed in what he had built. Perhaps it would keep him upright a little while longer. Perhaps a single wrong move would bring the whole thing down.
“In a couple more years I’ll retire and become a cranky Irish fiddler and won’t have to deal with lyrics,” Bud wrote to me in 2005.
In fact, he wrote songs to the very end. But I wonder if the fearless kid who ditched college to be a songwriter finally felt daunted. In the last years of his correspondence, he refers again and again to his third album, Standing Eight, which, critics agreed, was brilliant. “This might be my next Standing Eight,” Bud hoped more than once. In a moment of near-naked candor, he wrote: “I would hate to think my best work is behind me.”
It might have been. Imagine a field of new-fallen snow; imagine a man setting off across it: the crisp footprints, the dazzling light. A blue, almost holy glow. Bud had a few dozen songs that took us deeper and deeper into fresh snow, and his best work was pure and clear and true. But by the end, he seemed to be circling around again, to places he’d already taken us. His tracks melted to dark holes.
Between his first release in 1984 and his death in 2011, Bud made ten complete albums, with an eleventh collection. Standing Eight came out in 1989, shortly after his split from his first wife—the divorce album Rico once promised, but without anger, without resentment, without the lovelorn songs you might expect.
Instead, he put together a collection of characters who have taken their blows. In boxing, a standing eight-count is how a referee determines if a boxer is fit to go on. Sometimes it’s after a knockout, when a boxer clambers back to his feet, but Bud was thinking of the guy who never goes down, he told me at the album release party. He takes a bad hit, or a run of them, and somehow stays up, swaying, right on the verge of falling, or caught on the ropes. Standing for that full eight-count.
There’s regret in these songs, but it’s never diffuse; it’s keenly particular to each character. There are surprises—the driver who empties out his oil tank along the back roads of New Hampshire without a second thought; the quiet epitaph a man gives himself in a bar, two weeks before he dies in a fire; the advice a once-famous agent offers a young musician. There is loss described with heartbreaking restraint, love treated with wistful tenderness. And if the people in these songs have been hit and hit again, what emerges from the album as a whole is the sense that they keep going. The man in a hotel room who doesn’t want to make love to his girlfriend and doesn’t want to call his ex-wife does finally pick up the phone to make a dinner reservation. You move on, you push through. You find what comfort you can. It was the smoke that killed him, not the flame.
The songs of his 2007 album are still smart, still beautiful, still keenly observed. Bud would always be a good songwriter; he knew his craft. He could stretch musically, learn new instruments, bring those discoveries back to his work—the later arrangements are some of his best. But a different feeling rises from this album. You got to keep moving so you don’t fall down. You got to sing your song, you got to buy the round. It all starts as just a dream of traveling and shows, til you get out on the road and find all the exits closed.
“I’ve discovered most of my songs are autobiographical,” he told me. “It’s just that I write the things first and then they happen.” Maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to listen to this album, to set the life and spark of its title, Come Running, against lyrics with the hope wrung out of them.
These days, the sun don’t rise as much as it goes down.
These visions dance around you, but they never come to stay.
Where you gonna run to in a world so cold? Your heart keeps pushing on while it’s being bought and sold. Where you gonna run to in a world on fire, where your search for pure love leads to the end of desire?
Thirty years goin’ down by degrees, thirty years of thank-you and please, til all you get is the smoker’s cough and the alcohol disease.
This was his last album. By the time he started skipping performances, too frail or drunk to play, there wasn’t much left beyond the drinking, and he’d already written those songs.
“Writing will remain Hell; it doesn’t get any better,” he wrote to me once. “But think of it this way, you and I will get to hang out in Purgatory, smoking cigarettes, and it’ll be a breeze since we’ve already been through the real tough stuff.”
I believe that for Bud, the writing was paramount. The writing was what got you into heaven. The writing was why he lived. If he thought he couldn’t write without drinking, then he’d drink, even if he knew it would kill him.
Maybe a man who covers up too much for too long gets turned around, out there in the snow. Maybe he can’t find a place to stand, a place from which to look squarely at the world. Maybe in all the mud and slush, he can’t even find a clear path home.
During the last few years, Bud could barely finish a set. His fingers fumbled on the strings, the lyrics slid away from him. Sometimes he didn’t show up at all.
Still, he called me once, a couple years before he died, when I was booking the artists for the Festival. “It’d be nice to come back,” he said.
I knew what that would mean to him. I’d read the interview in which he said that playing our festival in 1985 was “the biggest thrill” of his life. “I had been there as a music fan as a teenager,” he said, “and making the shift to the other side of the fence was amazing.”
That was the first time he played. The last time, our press director had called my room from the lobby sometime after the bar closed. He’d found Bud in a hotel corridor, pushing his key card into a slot again and again. It was the wrong floor. My friend led him to the right door and opened it. But Bud just leaned against the wall, sliding down slow, like an egg broken against the plaster. I couldn’t possibly hire him. But I was still the skinny kid who hardly dared ask for his autograph, the awkward teenager Bud had championed, the uncertain girl to whom he had been unfailingly generous. I was almost as many people as he was.
“Come down and visit. You’re always welcome, anytime.” I swear, I said it gently. But what good was gentle?
“I know how these things go,” he said, and I tried not to cry, because I did too. We’d become the kind of friends who broke each other’s hearts.
Then he thanked me, because I offered to pay for a hotel room, to give him a pass.
In his last two weeks, Bud made a round of calls to people he hadn’t seen in a while. All these people report variations of my impressions—new hope, high spirits—as if he’d deliberately left us on a good note.
“He called twenty-four people,” C. said. “He knew.”
Heart disease, the articles say. They do not mention the bottles.
Those nights alone were almost too much to bear. Tell me you still love me one more time.
Bud gave me a chance to tell him I loved him one more time. But there were others he didn’t call. The ones who drove him to rehab and visited him there. The ones who begged him: Please stop.
“I don’t know,” P. said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
Bud didn’t call C. either. The last time they met was at a show where Bud opened for him. “He came up to me on the street outside, and I didn’t recognize him. That’s how he looked.”
This was several months before the end. Bud carried two coffee mugs onstage; the mugs had ice cubes. He stumbled through his set. When the show was over, he asked C. if they could tour together again, the way they once had. C. told him, “Yes. But you have to stop drinking.” Suddenly they talked about other things. Bud drank some bourbon. At the end of the night, C. hugged him and said, “I have to say good-bye to you. I don’t think I’m ever gonna see you again.” At the funeral, he was a pallbearer.
My good friends did the best they could to hold me down with them.
I can’t count myself among those good friends. I loved him, but I never tried to hold him. The truth is, by the end, I no longer believed he could be held. He was halfway to a ghost, wavering and yellow; you could all but put your hand through him. And in all the years when I played little sister, I never spoke up when his friends begged him to dry out. I never visited him in rehab. I had no idea, that last cold winter, that he didn’t have enough money to keep warm.
Maybe a man needs different kinds of friends, the kind who tell him and the kind who don’t.
“I think you were the better kind,” I said to P.
We were on our way to a tribute concert a few months after he died. P. would play, and I’d help out backstage.
After a while, P. said, “I don’t think he counted on living long. All those guys he loved, all those bluesmen. I think he’d figure closing in on sixty was a pretty good run.”
The guitars Bud sold to pay for heat were ones he’d bought as a collector, but the two he used himself were saved. At the tribute concert, they were placed onstage in their stands and spotlit for the performance. One was damaged; I don’t know how. Taped to its side was his list of songs, typed on chipped and yellowed paper. E. laid her hand flat on the body of his Epiphone, the way you feel for a heartbeat.
At the sound check, concert organizers tried them in various positions before deciding the performers would be flanked by them, one on each side of the stage. “It’s like he’s here with us,” E. said, which I appreciated, because I was thinking what a terrible idea this was, how lonely they looked, even a little bit silly: Bud’s guitars without Bud to play them. I thought of the jokes Bud might make about such a setup, calling them his polka band, maybe, turning and nodding in one direction then another before beginning his next song. Wait for my count, man.
But I was thinking foolish things by then. Would the guitars carry something of Bud in their necks and curves? Would the strings remember his hands? Would they resist what other people tried to play?
Downstairs, artists filled the basement dressing room, talking and laughing, rehearsing Bud’s songs; each had chosen one to sing. It’s a good place to start, a hard place to end. I’m just passing through here tonight, old friend.
The room was thick with what people remembered. Someone mentioned the photo of Bud on the Legacy album, I WROTE ALL OF G.’S SONGS, and G. shook his head and laughed. P. turned to me and spoke in a low voice. “I haven’t thought about Legacy in years. Remember Legacy? That was the one that was gonna make everyone famous.”
In another room, artists were signing stacks of slick black posters with silver pens. The ones waiting their turn looked at photos of each other’s children. “You’re a mama?” his friend S. asked me, incredulous. She’d flown in from the coast, one of the songwriters who did make it. The blues guitarist Bud once hoped I’d fancy has a little boy who looks just like him.
All of a sudden E. was crying. She remarried a few years after she and Bud split. Before the concert began, she introduced her kids to me. They have aspects of her in new, soft forms. The daughter’s gaze could take in the world.
“You get it, don’t you?” E. looked at me through tears. She was still his ally, his manager, his closest friend. When the authorities found his body, they recovered his cell phone and called her. She wants to make love. I want a drink. Drinking is what I do best.
She reached a hand to mine, her voice low and urgent. “You’re a mother. You know. I couldn’t bring a baby into that,” she said.
Bud’s e-mail moniker was neither Bud nor Lemon but Yorikke. In more than twelve years of e-mails, he hardly ever signed his real name. In one, he addressed me as Squinky and called himself Skunk. He signed another from Spitvalve Baxter, inventor of the bottleneck trumpet. In several, he reported that he’d quit drinking.
“Not sure for how long, but it might be for good. I feel better than I have in 25 years.”In another: “I don’t miss drinking at all. I feel too good to miss it.”
Another: “By the way, I’m now 6′ 2″ and 196 lbs. Those folk-steroids are finally kicking in.”
Another: “I think I’m on the right track.”
Another: “I feel unstoppable.”
Near the end of his life, Bud lived with a dog called Molly, a Katrina refugee whom he introduced, straight-faced, as a purebred Cajun terrier. “She’s a babe magnet,” he reported. “And a killer harmonica player.”
I never had a letter from Molly. But I sometimes wonder if she liked to drive, the way Bud’s old dog Rico did. Bud used to tell the story onstage, between songs, right after he and I started writing letters. “I have a dog, and the dog’s name is Bud,” he’d always begin. “Well, really, the dog’s name is Rico but his good friends call him Bud. And I gotta tell you, this dog was born to drive in Boston. So one day I put blocks on the pedals and gave him the wheel, and the next thing I knew, he was cutting across lanes, never using his directionals, giving people the paw.”
Picture them careening through Harvard Square: the dog propped up in the driver’s seat, his ears pricked up, his keen terrier stare out the windshield. Bud, or maybe Bess, is in the passenger seat beside him, laughing when the dog flicks a small white paw out the window. I imagine the pair of them feeling the way I did, those long-ago nights when Bud drove me anywhere I needed to go, and he opened his window to smoke, and I opened mine to feel the breeze, and I swear neither one of us wanted the ride to end.
Nalini Jones is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter, and other short fiction and essays.