Thursday, November 27, 2008

On the desecration of Hunter's shrine

It happened in this order: Hunter Brumfield III killed himself, two days after our band had a gig that went well, and my family moved into a new house expecting Hunter's help with the move (on the same day).I began to feel generally spooked by Hunter's ghost and I began to notice a silent cricket always standing on one of the bottom basement steps whenever I went downstairs (over the same period of days and weeks).

At first crippled by grief, I started to form my thoughts about Hunter – a person who had been thrillingly alive and gifted in so many ways – killing himself. I wrote an essay about all of the people Hunter had been in his short life and probed myself and our band for any possible guilt in his suicide. This essay circulated widely in the St. Louis music scene and ended up, I was told, as a printout in the restroom at Bill Christman’s hipster hangout.

I endeavored to write a novel that starts with the premise of someone being haunted by the spirit of a dead drummer that comes back as a cricket because there is a cricket boom in the basement of one of his living friends and it's easier (as the ghost eventually explains) to come back to life in a place of becoming, in a place where much life is coming into being, even if it’s only crickets.

I struggled to write this novel and was made miserable, as only writing a novel about difficult things can make you miserable, and I began to develop a shrine for Hunter in my basement that I was turning into an amateur museum (over the same period of a year).

On and off, I discussed Hunter hauntings with a number of other people who had endured them. Hunter's best friend and gal pal at the time of his death, Lindy Woracheck, visiting from Spain, told me she had not been particularly haunted by him, other than on one day with one page on one book of poetry.

Barack Obama's campaign for president began to look ascendent and then trumphant. In a vast array of new feelings this made possible was a totally new regret that Hunter was gone, because Hunter had been the ultimate crossover white boy (if we want to label people with colors or absences of colors or simultaneous presence of all colors); Hunter would have worn an Obama tattoo across his chest and persuaded so many Nader dreamers and anarchist millenarians to believe in hope through the electoral process that Obama would have won Missouri by a tiny but decisive margin on Election Night.

Two weeks after the election, my arts group Poetry Scores put K. Curtis Lyle's poem about 9/11 into visual art and musical performance. One of the drummers in the performance indicated with a knowing nod the high-hat cymbal he was using, which he had inherited from me, which (as he knew – he had replaced the dead Hunter in our rock band) I had borrowed from Hunter.

Over the next two days, in anticipation of houseguests for Thanksgiving, I spent the weekend in my basement, cleaning up the clutter, rearranging stuff and putting up new artwork to make it look like a museum again, instead of a basement. In addition to artwork, I maintain and display shrines to various musician and poet friends who are dead – not only Hunter but also Pops Farrar, Rosco Gordon, Nymah Kumah, and Leo Connellan. There is some emotional cost to doing this, to harboring all of these relics of people who are gone.

Hunter was the only sucide and the only young man among these deaths and the only dead man I ever really felt impinging upon the living in any extraordinary way. Sorting things on the floor over the course of two days, I noticed a cricket silently watching me from his own perch on the floor. On the second day my daughter, thinking it a spider, smashed the cave cricket flat onto the carpet and killed it. I can’t explain why, but I left its carcass there.

The next day, another musician (who had been playing in our band with Hunter when Hunter killed himself) was working his day job as handyman in my basement. He was rerouting some heating ducts to do a better job of blowing heat upstairs into the family room above the part of the basement I had transformed into a museum. The job turned out to be more involved and time-consuming than Mike expected. He had to rearrange a lot of materials – including the Hunter shrine, built from his abandoned drumkit and other relics – and he didn't have time to put anything back together before he had to meet his children at home at the end of the school day. I came home to a desecrated Hunter shrine.

I was spooked and disturbed. It seemed so senseless to see all of these things that had been so important to Hunter, artifacts of his life and death, which had been assembled into a shrine, now strewn around a room in my basement. The magic and meaning of the shrine had been spoiled – these were suddenly just random things that had belonged to someone who was now gone. The most puzzling and upsetting thing was that the shrine had been desecrated by someone who had known and loved Hunter at the same time I did, in the same band, and who knew about the shrine and what it meant. I sent a message to the workman, my friend Mike, asking him why he had desecrated the Hunter shrine.

Then I called him too. He explained about his needing to get home to meet his son after school. I still fumbled, needing more of an explanation. The shrine had included the last bottle of beer Hunter had enjoyed before killing himself. The beer bottle usually stood up on a drum from his drumkit at the top of his shrine. I asked Mike why I just found the bottle laying abandoned on its side. “Chris, I was doing some heavy-duty construction work,” Mike said. “It’s a bottle. I laid it down on its side, so I wouldn’t knock it over. I didn’t want to break it.”

Still feeling spooked, not alone, over the next two days I found myself pulling elements of the desecrated shrine into the next room and making what began to look like an assemblage sculpture. I have never had any gift or imagination for building things or making art in three dimensions. That seemed odd. I pulled some elements off the Pops Farrar shrine – a cloth flower and a turkey feather I had found blown off the grave of Robert Johnson – and added them to the new Hunter tribute sculpture shrine.

I noticed something odd and upsetting. The Indian head pipe that Pops had made me also had been disturbed. Sitting on top of the bowl of the pipe, which is the top of the Indian’s head, were two objects that looked like felt washers. I wondered why in the world Mike would pull dirty junk out of a construction job and put it onto my sacred pipe. I couldn’t imagine that Mike would do that. Walking out of the desecrated shrine with a bad feeling, I saw that cricket my daughter had killed on the basement floor.

I picked up my guitar, which I had neglected for many months, and tried to play some songs I used to play with Hunter. I noticed the guitar was out of tune – not surprisingly – but then was greatly surprised to find myself tuning it by ear. My ear has never been good enough to tune a guitar without a tuner.

As I started to play my oddball songs, I found myself making simple changes in my strumming patterns to standardize the timing a little bit. I am a self-taught guitarist with rudimentary skills, and I have always had problems teaching my songs to better musicians (like Mike or Hunter) because little quirks in my strumming and picking patterns have a way of dropping or adding beats that is difficult to follow and has to be memorized. Many musicians have tried to show me simple changes I could make in my playing to eleminate the needlessly tricky math in my songs, but I always have reverted to my peculiar strumming and my weird math. I was now for the first time hearing the bad math in my songs, the way most musicians do, and making the same simple corrections I had been shown but never been able to follow.

I rushed to the phone to call Mike. I wanted to explain that maybe the desecration of the shrine wasn’t such a bad thing, that it seemed to have somehow loosed the spirit of Hunter, and so far all it was doing was improving my skills in making art and playing music, things Hunter always had done much better than I do.

Mike said, “It’s funny you calling me about Hunter, because that’s all I’ve been thinking about since you said I desecrated the shrine. I looked up the word ‘desecrate’ and I’ve been thinking about what it all means. I’ve been thinking about how Hunter desecrated things. That’s one of the things he did. Like, he used to piss on the stage! Here a musician does all this work just to get up on the stage, and when he gets up on the stage, he pisses on it! Even suicide itself – that’s the ultimate act of desecration; that’s the destruction of your own life. Maybe that’s what Hunter needs, for his shrine to be desecrated once a year. Maybe that’s how you maintain a shrine to a spirit like Hunter’s.”

I thought all that through and agreed with it. Then I remembered the little felt washer-type things that had been placed on top of the Pops Farrar pipe, the other act of desecration. I asked Mike why he did that. He said he didn’t do anything of the sort. He looked at Pops’ pipe and held it – “I always do that when I am down there, I look at everything and think about everybody’ – but he wouldn’t add anything dirty to something like Pops’ pipe.

He asked me to describe the felt washer-type items again. He thought about it. Nothing from his duct job bore any resemblence to what I had described. “I know what it is,” he said, when it finally clicked, “that’s part of the drum pedal. That came off of Hunter’s drumkit. But nothing like that was on the pipe when I looked at it, and I didn’t mess with the drumkit except to move the shrine away from where I was working.”

“If you didn’t mess with the drumkit,” I said, “and you didn’t put those things on top of Pops’ pipe, then who did?”

Hunter was always a traveler. I guess he is passing through here again.


Confluence City said...

This message was left on MySpace by a musician who met Hunter on the gig we did two days before he killed himself:

I had a chance to talk to Hunter after the Jacobsmeyer's gig.
I had never met him but in the short conversation about music he seemed really genuine and spoke from the heart.
The conversation ended very abrubtly with an interuption from
a drunken aquaintence of mine who felt his attention was more important than Hunters. Hunter wrote down my phone number. That was the last and only time I would speak to him.
I was really excited that another musician showed interest in my music and went home and told my wife. A few days later Bob Kirksey told me of his death. Needless to say I was saddened. I still have the Riverfront Times article on his passing in the bottom drawer of my dresser with a stack of Bottle Rockets t-shirts that I've outgrown or have worn out but will never throw away.
Steve Chosich

Chris Johnson said...

For some reason, today, Hunter came to mind, and I realized that not having commented on your original post, was on my list of unfinished business, and that it needed to be done as soon as I was able. I did not know Hunter well, but my passing impression of him was that he was brilliant, gifted, large-hearted, truly original, and troubled. I split the bill with him once at Fred's, and endured his heckles there also. The song I wrote to his memory, just came out wrong. It was too soon-- I should have counted to ten before I wrote it, and counted to ten again, before Lindy was invited into the studio, where she read the lyrics for the first time, already seated at the microphone. Suicide, is the tragedy of tragedies, but hardest most of all, for those of us left among the living. That should have been the song's focus; the weight of the words, and it's compassion, should have, most of all, served the living. I have since rewritten it, and there's no saw and no blame, just a boy and a girl, a song and a guitar, and, the loss. More in the vein of a simple fairy tale (as you once observed of it, Chris, I think); abstract, implying no real persons and no real events. I like it better this way, and feel okay about playing it out for folks. I greatly regret the words of the initial version, and all that they might have implied, unintentionally, in their ambiguity. I certainly regret Hunter's last, final decision (I have, only come close, to it). And I think that Hunter would have regretted it, too, were he able.

Broadway said...

Hi Chris,

Funny I should be seeing you tonight and just now read this--I would love to see a tree of all those Hunter touched.

I heard of a recent suicide, which made me google his name, hoping for a fix. He was indeed one of the most "thrillingly alive" people I have ever met, and, although I've never felt literally haunted by him, I sense his absence. Our friendship taught me a lot and made me feel more alive.

The last time I saw him was at my college graduation. I hadn't planned on attending, but he convinced me to go with the incentive that he would be there. I heard of his suicide while out of the country weeks later.

Thank you for sharing your story.


My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay