The Day Don Brody Died: A Remembrance
By David Cogswell
Part One, An Obituary
Don Brody, Hoboken's Pied Piper
Hoboken's artistic and musical community was rocked by the loss of one of its most talented and beloved members when Don Brody passed away in his sleep on Dec. 27, 1997. He was visiting his father in Ohio with his wife of seven years Cheryl Welch, his son Perry, 5, and his daughter Molly, 17 months. Brody was 44.
Brody was best known in Hoboken as the gifted songwriter, singer and guitarist of the Marys, a duo that was the vehicle for his compositions from 1989 until his death. He came to the metropolitan area in 1982 as the front man of the ska-influenced rock band Cryin' Out Loud. The band achieved airplay on MTV before Brody left it to pursue music with a simpler instrumentation, which he felt was more suitable for the expression of the more subtle, tender emotions that were proving to be where his strongest songwriting talent lay.
In 1988, while still with Cryin' Out Loud, he met Ann Walsh and began arranging his songs around their two voices and his guitar. By summer of 1989 he was sure of his new, more minimalistic direction and a new duo, christened The Marys, began to perform live. "I try to make two voices become one voice," he said. "They are really both lead voices."
The Marys developed an irresistible repertoire of songs of love and heartbreak in a pop genre reminiscent of early '60s songwriters like Carole King or Lennon/McCartney, but delivered in a simple folk format with two voices and a single guitar. They often augmented the core sound with various other instruments, but the sound was complete with just the two of them. On stage, Brody joked that, "Most of my songs are about getting dumped."
Audiences fell in love with the bright melodic energy of the music and the deep sense of tragedy that underlay it. They performed almost constantly and became a familiar presence at nearly every musical venue in the area. Dee Jay Vin Scelsa discovered their 1991 demo "Your Friends, The Marys" and began playing it on his program "Idiot's Delight," which was then aired on 92.3 K Rock. They performed the Bottom Line and were featured in Spin and Creem magazines. Rolling Stone said The Marys' songs "speak volumes of heartbreak."
At the end of 1994, Brody and Ann Walsh went their separate ways, and in January, 1995, Brody formed a new Marys with Connie Sharar and continued to write, record and perform. In Summer 1997, The Marys released a new CD entitled Back This Way on Zesty Records. Brody remained active in many other musical projects as well, including a position as national sales director at Razor & Tie records. He was known and loved by many as a central figure in the Hoboken community and a strong supporter of the musical and artistic projects of others. "He was sort of the glue that held it all together," says Ann Walsh.
Brody was born in Columbus, Ohio, July 16, 1953. At the age of 2 he contracted polio, for which he had to undergo a number of surgical operations and was left with a disability that made walking difficult. He was the Ohio Poster child for the March of Dimes. His friends and family in Ohio knew well the hardship that he went through from the disease, but those who knew him in Hoboken were barely aware of it. His cheerful good humor and generosity of spirit so towered over his disability as to render it indifferent. But the emotional depth of his songs, achieved with deceptive simplicity, was evidence that he was no stranger to suffering.
His father, Stan Brody, started Don on the path toward his musical career at age 3 by buying him a small guitar, which he played with incessantly until it finally fell apart. He majored in theater arts at Ashland College and appeared in a number of plays, including "Waiting for Godot," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Fiddler on the Roof." "He was always singing, acting and playing guitar in bands," says his father. "He was extremely popular in high school. For years after his graduation, his high school had a 'Don Brody Day.'" In the mid-1970s, he worked as a disk jockey in Ohio, playing country music using the on-air name "Don Little Bear."
Of all of his projects, what was plainly closest to his heart and gave him the most happiness was his family. The love they gave to each other was palpable. When he met Cheryl Welch, his life visibly lit up, and there was no time that his sparkling sense of humor was more aptly employed than when he was strolling young Perry around town playing "Mr. Mom."
As Stan Brody said, "He really spent the happiest years of his life with Cheryl and the kids." Many of those who loved Don Brody in the Hoboken community have come forth with a warm wave of support for Cheryl, Perry and Molly. Brody's friend Rich Grula quoted someone as saying, "The world needs more Don Brodys, not less." Unfortunately, there will never be another.
Part Two: A Personal Reflection
The Day Don Brody Died
We got the news last night when we got home from the drive from Maine. Don Brody died in his sleep the night before, Dec. 27. It was a shock, incomprehensible. Then it continued to soak in throughout the night and now today, Sunday. The whole history of my friendship with him came back and is still coming back. With Elena too, a lot of associations were coming back for her. It put light on a whole era and pronounced it over. The Marys were the subject of my first article in the Hudson Current. It was a time when a lot of things began. The Rogers & Cogswell bookstore had changed to Black Water Books and we started on very shaky ground, a practically nonexistent foundation. It was little but magic that kept us afloat at all. Things were so dismal financially there was only a small chance that we could keep operating month to month. That's when I decided to start having musical performances and other events in the store. I remembered someone saying once, "If we're going to go down the tubes, let's do it in style," and that rang in my head.
Because Hoboken had such a rich music scene in those days, there were a lot of people who wanted to perform even in such an unglorious environment as a tiny struggling bookstore with the shelves scooted to the side.
Because of the musicians who came to play, the bookstore became a little center, a newsworthy event and it surely provided that extra margin of awareness that helped the bookstore to survive through five tough but fun years. The real highlight of that, the most delightful musical gift to us then was the Marys. They played in our store and created such a bright and beautiful little scene that people literally packed the store, lined up in the door way and crowded around the front. Playing in that little room with no microphones, down to bare bones, they sounded their very best to me, with no electrical hum to come between their voices and guitar and our ears.
I met them when Ann Walsh, Don's singing partner, introduced herself to me in the store and said that she and Don wanted to play there. I thought the Marys was a band and just the two of them were going to play. After my conversation with her, I billed the act as "Don Brody and Friends," because of my misunderstanding of exactly who or what The Marys were. It was after I did that that I met Don Brody for the first time. My first contact with him was his expression of his irritation that I had slighted his partner in the way I billed the act. But very quickly I saw the side of him that was always to be the most prominent part of his personality.
He was one of the most charming and clever people I ever ran into. He was always so funny. Whether he was onstage bantering or talking in private, his repartee was always peppered, quick, sharp, perceptive. He was just one of the most delightful humans you could hope to encounter.
Back then there was a sparkling chemistry between Don and Ann Walsh, who had only recently discovered each other and were so childishly exuberant about the whole thing. Don had broken out on his own from a rock and roll band that had made it from Ohio to MTV. Ann had broken out of a stifling marriage and a difficult restaurant business and was pursuing singing with the exhilaration of a bird uncaged.
There was a sense of destiny in their meeting, the complementarity of their situations and their personalities. They became each other's vehicles. Ann gave fuel to Don's writing, bringing a very strong individual style to his writing palette. His songwriting was powerful. I always wanted to play piano with him. The songs were so strong, the compositions had a solidity that made me want to play very compositional piano parts under them a la Carol King or Randy Newman. Theirs was a very profound meeting and the songs that came out of it were powerful. They are just as strong to me today as they were then. Even stronger to me because of all that passage of time and the deepening of that sense of tragedy that was really the quality that gave his songs an enduring, timeless quality.
When I got the chance to try my hand editing the local arts and entertainment paper, the Current, just by chance the first story they wanted me to do was on the Marys. It had already been slated for the next issue, and when I got my chance for my debut performance at the paper, I only had till the next morning to turn the story in. It was a great stroke of luck because by then they were my friends. I knew them well and I knew that even if I couldn't reach them in the few hours I had, I could write something based on the experience of having them play in the store and the tape I had.
I took that tape home and played it over and over all night while I wrote about them. Whatever merit the article may have had, or not had, it was a true expression of appreciation of them written as I played a tape that I was truly in love with. It touched all my personal tragedies, and through it I could get some of the sense of what it felt to be Don Brody. He was a very soulful young man who had suffered a great deal of heartache. I didn't really know about his life, but you could hear it in the music, in the lyrics. And I could only imagine what torments he had been through with the polio he had suffered as a child that had left its mark. Yet you never thought about it when he was around. He was so very charming it didn't occur to you that he had ever had any great problems.
I loved that tape. I let it play all night long on auto reverse in my little, cold barren apartment where I lived during the bleak separation from my wife that was in its second year. My heartbreak of having my family broken up connected me with the heartbreak in those songs. And there was also a sense of triumph in the songs. Don and Ann had freed themselves from earlier situations that would not have nurtured that music. There was a sense of celebration that the Marys had in just existing.
Then right about the same time the happiness that buoyed Don's musical life spilled over into his romantic life and he met and fell in love with Cheryl Welch, a woman who really appreciated what this man was, not only in the way the rest of us did, but in the total sense. They went ahead to build a beautiful little family adopting two babies, first Perry, then a little girl Molly a couple of years later.
Many of those beginnings have led to endings now. Black Water Books is history. The Marys broke up and Don found another partner, Connie Sharar. Ann went on to do other music. After three years, my time at the Current ended. I did a column in the Jersey Journal for a couple of years after that so I still wrote about the Marys sometimes. Then I left that and I wasn't writing about Hoboken music anymore or holding events in the store, or seeing people who walked down Washington Street, as Don often did with Perry.
When Don and Cheryl adopted their second baby they switched roles. Cheryl had been working as a designer while Don stayed home, played "Mr. Mom" and did his work from home. Then he went back to work and Cheryl stayed home with the kids. They bought a house in Hoboken. Don worked at Razor and Tie records and continued performing and recording with Connie as The Marys. Don and Cheryl were really living their dreams. I didn't see much of them or anyone else around Hoboken then. I heard that he had had to go to the hospital at a certain point over an infection in his leg, but that passed. None of it in any way prepared anyone for this.
It was with me all night as I slept and woke and was still with me this morning as I woke up, a heavy pallor over everything. But there was something friendly in it too because it was Don, it was about Don, it was his memory, his spirit and there is something beautiful about it even in this time of overwhelming tragedy. "Life, I think, is a blunder and a shame," some one said and I really feel it now.
He has gone on now, on beyond us. I feel he is still here now, and I have heard that spirits hover around the ones that love them for a while when they depart, that they go around and say their goodbyes. If it's true, I certainly put myself in the right atmosphere to receive him. I put on that old tape that I love so much and it makes me cry more now even than it did then. It did make me cry then, that's how I feel about this music, how I felt about it from the beginning and I said so in that article, maybe the only time I ever wrote such a thing about some music.
Now I hear all these signs, these premonitions that jump out of the music and hover in timelessness. The lyrics seem to foretell of this, and perhaps we are all marked if only we had the eyes to see. "I don't think some things are ever supposed to be right," they sang. "That doesn't matter to me. That's just a bad memory. The day that you chose to leave was the day Roy Orbison died.... And every time I hear 'Only the Lonely' or 'Crying,' I feel like he's still alive."
There were other little signs, little coincidences. Elena came upon a program of a performance Ro was in once and the song she was performing was "Mary Ann." Elena and I had just been singing Don's song "Hey Maryann." Then there was a listing on the cable preview channel of something called "Almost an Angel" for this afternoon, the same title as another Marys song. I looked in the Times TV listing and it wasn't there. It felt like a little message. Some say that the little synchronistic coincidences signal the presence of Mercury, or Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Those to me were like little signs that there is more to the universe than just the dismal materialism that we were trained to believe in. A message from the gods saying, no he is not completely vanished from all existence, he has only passed from this plane to the next one.
He has done that thing that we all fear so much now and we are the ones left behind. So he is our senior now, he has now moved beyond that greatest of all mysteries.
And for us mortals, the meaning of a person's life takes shape to us when it is concluded. Suddenly it is a closed curve and can be taken measure of. It can't be done for any of us living because any act yet to come could virtually negate all that had happened before. But once a person has left the world stage, the rest of us can see their lives as a totality and apply it to what is left of our lives. Once that mere drop of water in eternity is passed, ten, twenty or thirty years difference in life span may not matter much in terms of the totality of a life. And Don's life looked at that way says a great deal. I would be very pleased if I could make my life say as much in 20 or 30 more years.
That kid who was hit so hard by that polio when he was five or six that left his body so badly scarred made it all the way from Ohio to MTV. He just marched right through all the pretty boys and girls, through all the designing and fashioning of the industry in spite of a disability that made even walking very difficult. And the emotional depth, the soulfulness of those songs -- I can't help but think that his sufferings are an essential part of it. He suffered profoundly, and he had much to give and he gave it. He did it all rather quickly, as if he were conscious of the fact that his time was limited.
Over and over it comes to mind, how the profundity of an artist is conditional upon the depth of his own unique suffering. Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, so many other examples, their sufferings brought them into contact with the reality of mortality that many of the more fortunate can put off reckoning with.
All The Best George Bush By George Bush
George W. Bush, the son of the former president, has already spent more than anyone ever to become president. The visible part of the campaign tab is only part of the massive effort to put Junior into the presidency. The book All The Best, George Bush by George the Father is part of the campaign. Its role is to promote a nostalgic longing for the dear and respectable former president of a fondly remembered, simpler time. The past is always remembered as a simpler time. But in 1992, when an incumbent was thrown out of office in favor of a n upstart governor of Arkansas, a lot of people didn't feel so fondly about the Bush presidency.
The George Bush of the Gulf War was about as close to the real guy as we will ever see in public. Playing geopolitics is really his passion, and after so many years of having to do it covertly with the CIA and behind the curtain in the Reagan administration, he was finally able to do it openly and turn it into a great drama the whole world watched. If CNN's coverage was to be believed, the whole country was giddy with patriotic zeal. Bush became a John Wayne president and his approval ratings skyrocketed. After the war, they turned downward and finally plummetted.
While the economy went haywire, George barely noticed. Domestic policy wasn't his thing. "The Vision Thing," as he called it, was also a problem. What he loved was geopolitical gamesmanship. He was a protege of Nixon and Kissinger. He was Kissinger's man in Beijing as Mssrs. K and N ravaged Cambodia. The Contra war in Central America, the Panama invasion, Grenada: for that kind of adventure, he was champing at the bit. When it came to the price of milk for the masses, he had no attention span. Like Herbert Hoover saying "prosperity is just around the corner," he maintained that nothing was wrong. He finally acknowledged that the economy was "in freefall" and mumbled "I think I knew it." When the voters saw that he had no idea, it was curtains for George.
After lying low for several years, George Herbert Walker Bush is back with a new memoir timed to coincide with his son's campaign to recapture the throne for the Tories. All the Best, George Bush is designed to reinforce the image of George Bush Senior as an all-American good guy who worked his way up from humble beginnings to the highest office in the country, and served with great dignity. The image of Bush that is circulated in the media is that of a man of "character" who stands for the great American values: hard work, integrity, democracy. These descriptions are not consistent with a close examination of the facts of his career, but there is no danger of any such examination in this book. It is not without its measure of interest, but its value cannot be realized unless it is seen for what it is: a work of fiction.
The letters format, with its loose structure is good for communicating a message of symbols, emotions and generalities, without revealing much historical fact. "This book is not meant to be an autobiography," says Bush in the introduction. "It is not a historical documentation of my life." In this Bush speaks the truth. It is propaganda. Propaganda with a retail price of $30. But it is as close to a real document as we will probably ever get from him. From his induction into the ultra secret Skull and Bones at Yale through his long involvement with the shadowy underworld of the intelligence community, he has lived in a culture of secrecy.
The letters -- or the selections we are shown -- may be more or less authentic for what they are, but the picture they present is a tiny portion of the real George Bush. During the absentee presidency of Ronald Reagan, Bush was a principal behind-the-scenes operator, as would later become clear in the investigations of the Iran Contra affair. When Reagan was hit in the chest two months after taking office, the 70-year-old man needed a prolonged convalescence and was barely present when the foundations of his administration were being laid down. If there was one skill besides acting that Reagan mastered, it was delegation. He was one of the most hands-off presidents ever. This created a massive power vacuum that Bush was extremely aggressive and skilled in exploiting. He took a command position as new covert operational structures were built within the government with names like the Special Situation Group, the Crisis Management Center, the Terrorist Incident Workding Group, the Task For on Combatting Terrorism and the Operations Sub Group. His contacts in the CIA served him well in the implementation of the mechanisms to wage the Central American war in spite of a congressional prohibition. When the Iran Contra scandal unraveled, everything led back to Bush's closest associates, who all got pardons one Christmas Eve a few years later when Bush was president.
The "folksy" image Bush presented to the public is theater. It has little to do with what he is really about. In real life he is both better and worse than the public image. As a covert operator, he is formidable. He knows the channels, has the connections, is well schooled in the techniques of the intelligence communities. The muddle-headed character he presents to the public is Bush attempting to do Reagan, pretending to be the simple guy who stands for old-fashioned American values, who maybe doesn't care for book-learnin' so much, but is earnest and sincere. The real Bush is a smooth operator, much smarter than the public image suggests, but also much more evil. A contrary view to balance this book can be found in the online publication The Unauthorized Biography of George Bush [www.kmf.org/williams/bushbook/bushb.html]. It is thoroughly documented, so questions about its content can be investigated.
The Bush of All the Best... is the public image. He carries the fumbling, good-hearted George character into the book, and it makes for some strange reading. The nostalgic, hackneyed language evokes the movie heroes of his youth like Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne: "I have gotten to know most of the fellows in the platoon," he writes at age 18. "They are a darn good-hearted bunch..." Or, "Dear Mum, Gosh it was wonderful hearing your voice today -- It was swell of you to call. I got the message just after I came back from church..."
The language in the book is intriguing. He tells us that Barbara lost her love letters, and he puts the word "love" in quotation marks. One can only surmise what he meant. When Barbara's father approves of their wedding plans, George says he is "terribly glad."
His soul searching about career options rings especially hollow. "So far I haven't been able to make up my mind on what I want to do... Further education isn't out of my mind by a long shot... It took the war, and the Navy to show me how advantageous a good education can be. I say advantageous and not necessary, for I do feel that I would get along with a bit of initiative and honest endeavor provided I could get some employer to give me a chance." In real life, George had no worries about finding "some employer." The family's influential friends were among the wealthiest and most powerful bankers in the world, including Bernard Baruch and the Harriman family, Averell and Bunny.
Plowing through 600 pages of this kind of language is difficult. It reveals a strange mind. As a politician whose public presentation is so at variance with his true motives the prose creates a strange sense of disassociation. I found myself recalling the letters of Ted Bundy, the serial killer whose public image was so smooth, in The Killer Beside Me by Ann Rule. Language has a magical way of revealing the underlying incongruencies, the contradictions between the lines.
The book shows the image the Bush camp wants to present, crafted with the help of some of the best market research money can buy. The research tells what voters will "buy" and the product is fashioned for them. Once a president gets into office, however, there is a no return policy. Voters who wanted real tax reform or affordable health care are not likely to get it.
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