Charlie Chesterman: Farewell to a True Original - November 6, 2013
The first time I ever met Charlie Chesterman was a moment of beautiful and unadulterated sarcasm, the kind of which I would learn only someone such as Charlie could truly pull off.
It was sometime in March 1990, and I was part of a small crowd – maybe 15 or 20 – who had just witnessed what he would later tell me was probably one his band Scruffy the Cat's final shows. Charlie leaned into the mic and said, "I'd like to personally thank each and every one of you for coming out tonight." And then he leapt from the stage and ran around the room, shaking the hand of every startled attendee and saying, "Thank you!"
By the time he got to me, I was already chuckling, learning without a doubt that he was every bit the playful and sarcastic soul he seemed to be in interviews and in his songs. He grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, uttered his abrupt "Thank you!" and moved on.
I've been going through my index of Charlie Chesterman memories since I learned of his passing on Tuesday; he'd gamely battled cancer for several years, but those are battles rarely won, even by those with the kind of determined spirit Charlie possessed.
The truth is, I didn't know Charlie well. But as I've said several times this week, I feel I knew him well enough. It's strange to think that you can form an intimacy with someone primarily based on listening to him sing into your headphones for 25 years, but that's exactly how it feels. It feels like I lost a friend, even though we only spent a few hours together.
One of his friends wrote on Facebook that, "Within Charlie's songs is pretty much everything worth knowing about love." Charlie's songs provided the soundtrack to the second half of my life. For my 20s, it was the rough and tumble Scruffy the Cat – the first time I heard “Mybabyshe’sallright,” I was hooked. That was it. I can still remember going to ear X-tacy (the small Bardstown Road location next to the Great Escape) and buying my vinyl copy of Tiny Days. I can still remember plucking it from the rack and looking at the giant Gretsch staring back at me. That was Charlie’s hand playing that chord.
“You Dirty Rat” would become my tongue-in-cheek breakup song of choice. You see, I could tell that Charlie got it; he wrote about heavy emotional topics like longing and heartbreak, but there was always just a hint of sarcasm to let you know that, yeah, it’s serious, but it’s not necessarily meant to be taken too seriously. If that even makes sense.
When the criminally ignored album Moons of Jupiter became a commercial flop, ultimately leading to the band’s breakup, I began seeing cassette copies in cut-out bins in record stores around my hometown of Louisville, Ky. I bought probably six or seven of them, solely to give to a friend I thought would also get it, and I would say, “Listen to this. It will change your life.” (Note: Before I handed them out, I would remove the plastic seal and snatch the Scruffy the Cat sticker. Hey, I wanted to change my friends’ lives, but I still wanted to keep the sticker.)
A few years later, after I’d lost track of what Charlie was up to, a new invention fell into my hands – it was something called the Internet, or as it was widely known then, the World Wide Web. I can still remember the first time I sat down and gazed into a computer screen at a web browser. In this case, it was Netscape. My friend Ryan said, “Go ahead. Type in anything.”
I paused for a moment to ponder. So, I’ve got access to the entire world at my fingertips? It boggled my mind. I raised my hands and typed two words: “Charlie Chesterman.”
This is how I learned that Charlie was still making music, and at that point had released not one, but TWO solo albums. I nearly crapped myself. Fortunately, the feature story I had stumbled upon revealed that the albums were available through Chapel Hill-based Redeye Distribution. So, the next day, I went to the local public library, tracked down a copy of the Chapel Hill, N.C., phone book and looked up Redeye. I jotted down the phone number, went home and called.
I literally had to mail them a check, wait for the check to clear, and then wait for them to ship the CDs. It was, shall we say, a very long and arduous wait. But when the CDs arrived, a new world of Charlie songs opened up to me. A year later, Charlie would provide the soundtrack to my divorce.
If you’re a Charlie fan and you’ve been through a rough breakup, you know what I mean – it isn’t just the lyrics, it’s how he delivers them. His voice is thin and even a bit tinny, but they drip with emotion and sincerity. Charlie’s songs have brought me to tears on countless occasions; the great thing is, they’ve made me laugh on at least as many.
Not long after that, with the release of Dynamite Music Machine, he provided the soundtrack to a meaningful post-divorce relationship. I can still remember standing outside with “Bread & Butter” blaring from my car speakers, telling my then girlfriend, “Wait – listen to what he says here.”
“You and me go together, like bread and jelly,” Charlie crooned, in that unique voice that crackled with the aforementioned sincerity (along with that dash of sarcasm), followed by, “Woah, nelly!”
She and I cracked up. It was a signature moment of our friendship, and Charlie became a go-to staple whenever we would take road trips or listen to music at home.
Shortly after she and I broke up (we’re still friends today, I should note), a fellow Scruffy/Charlie fan I’d met online sent me a tape of some songs I didn’t have. One of those songs was “A New Lease on Life (Parts 1 & 2).” I can still remember lying on the cheap blue carpet in my apartment listening to that song for the first time. Maybe it was my emotional state, or maybe it really was just a song that touched me, but it went all the way to my soul. It became my favorite Charlie song.
Being a music writer and a fairly aggressive sort of guy, I decided I’d try to contact the record label that had put out Dynamite Music Machine. Next thing I knew, I got a package in the mail with promo copies of the CD, promo photos, posters, etc. I was thrilled. I wrote a review for the local entertainment mag. I still have all that stuff, still in the original envelope (save for one of the promo CDs, which is in my music collection and still in its cellophane wrapper).
Somewhere along the line, I contacted Charlie through his website. To my surprise, he responded personally. I believe I may have mailed him a copy of my Dynamite Music Machine review, but however it happened, we became cyber-acquaintances. In around 2000, when Ham Radio came out, I begged my editor to let me interview Charlie and do a story. I got the green-light, and arranged to call Charlie at home. We talked for a good 40 minutes – he told me stories, we talked about his visit to Louisville back in ‘90, and I recounted my memories from that show. He had no recollection of the impromptu thank yous.
He also didn’t recall that after playing “Buck Naked,” he conferred with the band as to what to play next. When some rude jack-ass yelled, “Play another song already!”, the band instantly launched into a reprise of “Buck Naked.” When the song ended, Charlie looked around and said, “That’ll put an end to THAT shit.”
Anyway, during that phone interview, I mentioned the dash of sarcasm in his love songs, and asked him, “So, does that make you a hopeless romantic or just a smart-ass?” He laughed out loud for a good 10 seconds. Finally he said, “I don’t know, but that’s the best question I’ve ever been asked.”
Three years later, I read that Charlie and the Legendary Motorbikes would be playing at Twangfest in St. Louis, which is about a three and a half hour drive for me. I had hoped to go, and I had also been bugging Charlie about making me a tape of some demos and unreleased tracks I’d heard about somewhere. I teased, “Hey Charlie, if I come to Twangfest, will make me a tape of those songs? I’ll buy you a beer.”
He wrote back, “Do come. Don’t plan to get a tape, but plan to buy me a beer. I can barely afford this trip as it is, let alone having beer money to boot.”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go. And I always regretted it. But that’s life, right? My chance to buy Charlie Chesterman a beer would hopefully come again another day.
With the release of Skunk on the Loose and Well My Heart Went Boom, I received an envelope in the mail one day, out of the blue. It had Charlie’s return address on it. I opened it to find copies of both CDs, along with a handwritten note on a blue Post-it. The note read, “Kevin: If you already bought copies, feel free to sell these on eBay! –Charlie”
During this time, Charlie had somehow connected me with Pete Weiss, who began sending me his music, as well as that of other great Boston artists like Jeff Mellin and Orange Nichole. I reviewed their records and began to follow them. Hey, if they’re friends of Charlie, then they’re OK in my book. I would come to “friend” them on Facebook (I’m still not comfortable with using the word “friend” as a verb, but whatever).
I also connected with Charlie on Facebook, and would occasionally trade notes with him about this or that. And then I learned that Charlie had been battling cancer. I wanted badly to attend the benefit show and Scruffy reunion in 2011, but my budget wouldn’t allow it. And then one day, a few months later, I got an e-mail – it was a call for songs for a Charlie tribute album. I immediately threw the Uncommon Houseflies’ hat in the ring.
Of course, the song I chose was “A New Lease on Life.” We recorded our version of it, I hated my vocal, but it was accepted as part of the compilation titled, Chorus vs. Solos: A Tribute to Charlie Chesterman. As a fanboy for nearly a quarter century, this was among the greatest thrills of my life. I can’t even begin to describe it – you see, Charlie was one of my songwriting heroes. I’m no accomplished musician, not by any stretch, but I’m a true music lover, and Charlie, for my money, was just this side of being a Beatle.
Which brings me back to how someone you barely know can somehow feel like a friend through their music. When I got an e-mail from Bob Voges about the CD release show to benefit Charlie and his family, I knew instantly the Uncommon Houseflies had to be on that bill. Bob was surprised we were willing to make the trip from Louisville, Ky., to play a 30-minute set for nothing. But that was no ordinary 30-minute set – this was for Charlie. I asked Butch, our guitar player, if he was in, and he never hesitated in saying yes.
A couple of weeks before the show, I got a Facebook message from Charlie. It said, “Do you want to stay with me when you come to Boston? It will be cheeper.” (Charlie liked intentionally misspelling words. I always thought that was hilarious. I got it.)
When we hit the road, we had around $200 in the band fund. That got us our first night’s stay at a Red Roof Inn, enough gas to get to Buffalo, N.Y., a crappy lunch at Wendy’s and a 12-pack of Yuengling beer. Hey, when you’re a band on the road, you gotta have the essentials.
Charlie had said he’d call me the Friday before the show, but I hadn’t heard from him all day as we arrived in Boston in the late afternoon. We were almost to Somerville, on our way to check out Radio, the show venue, when my phone rang.
“It’s Charlie!” I said.
“Don’t panic,” Butch said. (He fully understood what this trip meant for me. Heh.)
“Hello,” I said.
“Hey Kevin, this is Charlie Chesterman calling.” Yep, that was the distinctive Charlie voice all right.
He asked what time we would be coming over, I told him it would be later in the evening, and he said, “That’s probably best. I didn’t pick up the house like I was supposed to, so there’s some panic over cleaning.”
“Aw, don’t clean just for us, Charlie,” I said.
“That’s what I told my wife,” he said, laughing. “I told her, ‘They’re just coming to play a rock ‘n’ roll show. They don’t care what the house looks like!’”
Later in the evening, I called him back and told him we’d be heading over. He said, “I’m at the liquor store right now, so give me 15 minutes. I thought I’d sit on the porch and drink a beer.”
“We’d love to join you,” I said.
“Sounds good,” he said. “See you in a bit.”
When we found his neighborhood and his house, we couldn’t quite see the house number. I walked toward the one we thought it was, and the front door was open.
“Is that it?” Butch said from behind me. That’s when I saw the poster hanging there just inside the door: Twangfest 2003.
“This is it,” I said. “No doubt.”
About that time, Charlie appeared. He helped us carry our stuff in, and his daughter Clementine came bounding down the stairs.
“She was scared to death she wasn’t going to meet you guys,” Charlie said.
She had an armful of Harry Potter books, and she told us excitedly of which one she was reading at the time, and how many times she’d read them all. I was immediately captivated by this awesome little girl. She had a dash of that Charlie spark, I could tell immediately.
Anyway, we sat there talking with Charlie for probably an hour, maybe two, and I grilled him about his songs, Scruffy history, why drummers are so unreliable and other topics. At one point, we discussed who would be on Mount Rockmore – imagining if, instead of presidents, it was rock stars. Who were the most important four?
I mentioned that one of my friends had argued once for Tom Petty to be on Mount Rockmore.
“Tom Petty??” Charlie said. “Tell you what: We’ll put a Tom Petty sticker in the men’s bathroom at the rest stop before you get to Mount Rockmore.”
Charlie’s beer emptied at one point, and I said, “Would you like one of these Yuenglings?”
He said, “I’d love to have one of your Yuenglings.” So I opened one for him and handed it over. Don’t laugh, but I stuck the bottle cap in my pocket immediately. I still have it, safely tucked away. And I finally got to buy Charlie that beer I had promised him.
The next morning, we had a bit of time to chat with Charlie and meet the rest of his beautiful family. Clementine showed me books, showed me knickknacks, showed me whatever she could find. It seemed every other sentence began with “My daddy and I …” It was so clear that she idolized Charlie Chesterman. Hey, I got it. Lots of people did.
At one point she said, “I have a treasure to show you.” I said, “Oh, treasure, let’s see it.”
She brought me a small square box. She opened the lid, and handed me … a tiny frog. A real one.
“It’s a petrified frog,” she said. “My daddy found it at work.” Charlie would go on to explain that he could only figure that the salt water had somehow preserved it, and he thought it was kind of cool, so he brought it home to Clementine. Indeed, it was very cool.
After Charlie’s family left to run some errands, we were left to spend another hour or so with him. He made coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, but at one point Butch said, “Charlie, this is some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.”
Charlie said, “Well, enjoy it, because it’s the only time you’ll ever have it. I’m out of my regular coffee, so I just mixed a bunch of stuff together. It’s a mystery blend.”
“Mystery blend,” I said. “Butch, that sounds like a song title. We need to write that.”
Charlie laughed and said, “I’m stuck inside the bathroom, when it will it end? Mystery blend. There you go, there are your first two lines.”
That exchange became this song. So, in a way, we can now say we wrote a song with Charlie. He didn’t want a co-write credit (and if you listen to the song, you might understand why), but when I sent him the finished recording back in April, he said, “Sounds great! Keep it up!” And he also noted that when he played it, somehow the music player on his computer got stuck. So it played over and over.
He wrote, “My music player got stuck so I had (HAD!) to listen to it six times in a row!”
Anyway, later that day at the venue, I asked Charlie to sing a song with us – either “A New Lease on Life” or “Moons of Jupiter,” which is a semi-regular in our set (we also made a recording of it which you cannot buy anywhere). He chose the latter, and then set about remembering the lyric. I have a picture of him sitting, legs crossed in classic Charlie fashion, his brow set, determinedly jotting down the words to the song in preparation.
One thing that struck me when he sang with us that day was that our fill-in drummer Cal Cali – who did an outstanding job, especially given we never got to rehearse with him! – forgot to play the breakdown in the song. I momentarily panicked, but Charlie never missed a beat, quickly launching into the final chorus.
While on stage, I just kept looking at Charlie. It was a surreal moment for me, one that will be forever stuck in time – I was on stage, performing with one of my greatest music heroes. I sang backup on the chorus just so I could say I had sung a song with Charlie Chesterman.
While he was on stage, I thanked him publicly for letting us crash at his house. He said, “Yeah, and meanwhile, I had to sleep in a tent in the backyard!”
I bought a ton of CDs and posters that day to help the cause, and we had a great time. I got to buy Charlie yet another beer at one point, and got a few more minutes to chat with him. I had worn on stage that day a vintage Scruffy t-shirt I had bought in 1988 at a show in Cincinnati, Ohio. It had yellowed with age, but was in good shape otherwise.
Earlier that day, I had shown it to Clementine, who looked at the distinctive cat logo and said, “Did you know my daddy drew that?” I said, “Yes, I did. I have always liked it.” (This is why I hoarded the stickers.)
About that time, Charlie walked into the room, and Clementine said, “Look what Kevin has.”
Charlie said, “Oh yeah, I’ve still got one of those.”
I said, “I bet mine is more yellow and gross than yours.”
He stopped, looked closely at my shirt, and said, “Maybe.” And then walked off into the kitchen without another word.
Later that day, when the show was over and I was on my way out the door as the room was dispersing, I asked Charlie to sign the shirt. I took it off and handed it to him, and he wrote, simply, “All the best, Charlie Chesterman.” He had others waiting on autographs and was probably feeling rushed, but I wanted one last moment. I stumbled on my words at first because, hey, this was Charlie Chesterman – my idol. What do you say to your idol if you aren’t sure you will ever get to spend time with him again?
“Charlie,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder, “thank you for all the happiness.” He seemed a bit embarrassed by it (he was a self-effacing guy), and said, “Well, thank you, sir, for being here today.”
So that’s it – not counting Facebook messages, those were the last words I ever got to say to Charlie Chesterman: “Thank you for all the happiness.”
It may have sounded stupid at the time, but that’s what came out. I think, in light of the joy I still get from listening to his music and enjoying the few memories I have of him, it was awkward but appropriate. Completely appropriate, the more I think about it.
And that’s why I mourn this week for a guy I didn’t know well but somehow knew well enough. It feels like I lost a friend. I believe that I did, because it’s hard to imagine someone knowing Charlie at all without feeling like you were his friend. Heck, when we left his house for the last time – telling him we were crashing with another Boston friend that night – he felt badly.
“I hate that you guys are leaving, since you’re stuff’s already here,” he said. Butch and I didn’t want to impose on him and his family any further; he felt guilty that he wasn’t giving us more, somehow, than he already had. So, yeah, I didn’t really know Charlie up to that point, and yet I did.
So long, Charlie. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know you at least a little, both through your amazing songs and spending what little bit of time with you that I did. And I promise that if I’m still alive 25 years from now, I’ll still be spinning your tunes – in my car, on my computer, in my head and in my heart.