(“I Knew Right Away He Was Not Ordinary”)
These memories of Chris Pfouts—fiction-writer, editor of multiple magazines devoted to the arts of tattooing and motorcycle culture, multi-talented craftsman, life-adventurer, and generous friend of man and beasts of all kinds—come more than two years after his passing (June 2013). I only just learned about it, because while our friendship of several years was an intense one in the way of fellow writers—starting way back in New York City in 1986—we had gone our ways and lost touch by the mid-1990s. That was my fault, and Chris’ decision, which I’ll explain in due course. On my side, anyway, the best of the friendship went on through after-years, teaching and encouraging me to rise to my very best as a man and writer, and his passing away will make no difference in that relationship.
In 1986 a mutual freelance-writing friend had invited each of us with many others to his annual Easter gathering at his New York home, and that’s where I met Chris—a versatile, merrily opinionated fellow scribbler who was the picture of the biker gang-leader you’d never want to meet in a dark alley: he must have been 6-foot-five from the long thick hair down his shoulders to his motorcycle boots, with a broad lean build of California surfer steel, a quick bright smile and piercing stare, a goatee gracing his rough rocky features, and always a beer in his formidable mitt.
Chris loved to laugh, especially right through anybody’s pompous pretensions. He loved rough ruthless honesty, and he knew how to listen before he drove his wit through your brain, gut, or both. While I was writing for educational textbook publishers, Chris wrote for and edited various motorbike and tattoo magazines: two of his primary passions, not to mention his love for hard-hitting literature, hand-crafting jewelry, and his ever-growing collection of vintage children’s toys, most lately including a “Mr. Machine” fresh out of the 1960s box, whose acquisition tickled him like a giant kid. Before the day was out, we each knew that the other was struggling to write our first serious books, and we made a pact to swap manuscripts and feedback. Having noticed that Chris came to this half-dressy holiday gathering in jeans and a T-shirt, it was too late to escape the pact when I saw at last the “Psychotic Reaction” tattoo on his bicep.
Plowing my way through the ancient-world research for a literary historical novel, these first impressions made me dread Chris’ sometimes-brutal bluntness—and yet I wanted to know if the work could stand up to it, and if I could rise to his comments and his friendship. In fact, Chris went into thoughtful, open-minded detail far beyond anybody else’s reactions, he told me plainly what he thought I should hammer harder and what I should drop, and I daresay the work gained tremendously from his response.
Meanwhile, Chris’ novel—called Music From A Cement Piano—knocked me over with its energy and eroticism, its sharp randy dialogue, its lovingly obsessive detail and humor, spare but rich style, and its trio of main characters who all seemed to have been carved out of sides of Chris himself. The narrator was indeed the image and voice of my new friend with his range of interests and talents, from breaking motorcycles down to the bone and rebuilding them to his gift for turning any bit of scrap-metal into novel jewelry, while he and his mate—a powerfully sexy and vibrantly outspoken half-black woman—shared the joys of house-sitting at the former California residence of actress Carole Lombard.
The passion between them was no more or less than living life richly each day, exemplified by the first pages’ scene of their drinking and fucking in Lombard’s swimming pool. The central complication arose from the third character, whom I remember as Carl—a crude-brained local landscaper whose failing marriage to an overweight wife he called “Mushy Fuck” led him to start spying on the lovers through their Hollywood hedgerows. Chapter by punchy chapter alternated between the lovers’ steamy life-delighted joys, and Carl’s pathetic intensifying spiral of pornographic peeping and personal misery. Page by page, I knew that Carl wasn’t going to be satisfied till he somehow laid his grubby hands on her, and/or their luscious lives—and by the end, told with just as much gusto as the rest, Carl’s insane invasion of their world cost him his own. The words tour de force came to mind, and Chris was just as grateful as I was to have his work enjoyed and taken so seriously.
I’m not sure how many times Chris tried to get Piano published—I greatly hope that this outstanding book eventually does see print—but I failed the same likely number of times with my own work, and we kept each other going as writers will. Chris’ various New York apartments were big quasi-industrial spaces where he could spread out his projects and passions: he loved all kinds of exotic mechanical junk, rare crazy records, and always there was a half-assembled motorcycle splayed out in his living-space, his dream to build/restore for himself the perfect vintage Indian Chief. Then, by the fall of 1987, I got the lifetime-opportunity to leave New York for the Greek island of Crete (about which I was writing), and Chris’ letters kept his usual sparks flying as he bounced from gig to gig, writing constantly in multiple modes and, like me, fighting for that break that could launch the life we really wanted—answerable to nothing except our skills and arts.
When I came back from that dreamlike year of writing by the sea in Crete, I bounced next for a year to Portland, Oregon, where my engagement with a terrific woman broke up on the rocks of my virtual unemployment; and, not wanting to live in New York anymore, I next bounced back to my family home north of Boston, while Chris left the city for new freelance horizons in Pennsylvania. His letters said he found it as drab and dull there as a rusty muffler, and eventually he returned to New York City. Soon I’d bounced again, back to Crete on my own for another year of trying to finish that goddam novel and land a European publisher for it—and Chris, to my great surprise and pleasure, came over to see what this Greece thing was all about for two weeks in that May of 1991.
He had meanwhile sent me the much-appreciated company of some of his favorite half-whacked tunes collected on cassette: it opened and ended with “Hot Rod Lincoln” versions by Johnny Bond and Commander Cody. The rest of the list was pure Chris-company that kept my isolated spirits up: “Out With The Girls” and “Fujiyama Mama” by Pearl Harbour, “Six Days On The Road” by Dave Dudley, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (by “Dylan Is God”), Captain Beefheart’s “Plastic Factory,” “Baby Please Don’t Go” by Them, “Big Balls” by AC/DC, three Black Sabbath tunes (“Ozzie Fuckin’ Rules!”), and the creepy-funny “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus.
None of those tourist-pussy Vespa’s for Chris: he was going to ride a decent bike or forget it, and I deferred to become his rider as we took to Crete’s seacoast and mountain roads, with him driving and me guiding the tour. Chris instantly loved the island’s semi-desert high country and bright blue sea, the fresh food and warm-hearted people, the blasé way in which everyone enjoyed the almost-naked beach customs and topless sunbathing European nymphs. Chris couldn’t stop often enough to photograph the new-to-him language of Greek highway signs: for example, a simple exclamation-mark before a hairy turn or hazard which he translated roughly, “Hey stupid, wake the fuck up!” He also loved the little roadside shrines that usually marked where somebody had been killed by careless driving: more than once it was nothing but Chris’ sharp eyes that saved us from plummeting down into some hairpin-turn’s ravine or into a road-collapsed pot-hole. “Oh, look!” he’d say pointing at one with his best Curly-voice from The Three Stooges. Chris was also rich with always-spot-on lines from books and songs for every occasion: talking about a certain slim romantic hope of the day, he laughed with Dylan, “I still can’t remember all the best things she said!”
As we stopped someplace to swim and eat, I saw for the first time Chris with his shirt off, and almost fell over when I saw the ultimate writer’s tattoo across the huge expanse of his back: he’d never mentioned having it, but there was the biggest and most detailed image I’d ever seen on a human body, a shapely brunette in leopard-skin bra and tights leaning back on an old Remington typewriter whose rendering made you think you could tap the keys. And that, baby, was Chris’ muse: the woman who’d never get off his back.
There was also a kind of new caution in Chris, who was now holding off from more than a couple of the Greek and German beers he liked so much, and the explanation for that also came from his flesh. Chris had been shot, in the leg, one night during his last year in New York, and the scars from the hell-hole hospital operations he’d endured to save it were horrifying. His manly reticence meant I’d never heard about it, and would get no real details until he published Lead Poisoning: 25 True Stories from the Wrong End of a Gun later that year. But I do know that he came through it not only thinner and more cautious, but more subdued, having looked—as he’d almost bled to death on that Brooklyn street, shot by a neighborhood crack-dealer—into the face of the real Reaper.
The essential facts: one summer night, living in his usual big-and-cheap-rent kind of place in Brooklyn, Chris stepped out across the street to the local bodega for some beers. He’d casually dropped his latest bag of trash into a curbside can, and as he then stood waiting in line in front of the bodega’s bulletproof window, he watched a local young crack-dealer rip his trash-bag out of the can, come across the street with it, and pour its contents all over the street in front of him. “Yeah?” Chris shrugged to him. “What are you gonna do now?” The reply was, “I’m gonna do this, motherfucker,” and the shit-for-brains pulled a pistol and shot Chris in the leg. Chris, by chance having dropped his trash on top of the dealer’s street-side dope-stash, went down, then managed to crawl as he bled back up the stairs to his apartment, and had the terrified presence of mind to call a friend before he dialed 911—so that, in case he went into shock, he could be sure that his Emergency call wasn’t a delusion that left him to bleed to death. Chris only just barely survived at all, and several restorative surgeries put him through a god-awful gauntlet of the medical care that mostly-impecunious Americans typically receive.
Before Chris went back home with his usual armload of projects, plans and career-hopes—about which he was willing to confess more discouragement than ever before—he told me, “You’ve really found a great place here, Jack: make the most of it, and do whatever you have to do to get that damn book out there.” One last night, we were roving around chasing semi-close encounters with stunning young Cretan women in the thick of the crazy streets of Heraklion. “That woman is five quarts of sex in a gallon jug,” he quipped; dismissing a try to talk with another because “I’d just be disappointed when I see the grass-stains on her knees.” At last, Chris came out of a music store with a Thanks-for-the-visit gift for me, a rare cassette of very early Dylan songs. Inside it, he wrote a line from Dylan’s “Isis”: “I knew right away he was not ordinary.”
So, Chris and I kept on keeping in touch. He grew his working network of writing/editing jobs (he styled himself “Top Hat” as an editor), and managed some time in northern Europe in that connection, speaking out against racist remarks he once heard with a riposte something like: “Yeah, put black people down all you want, Fritz, and you can thank them later for all that jazz you love but never created, and all the other things you’ve ripped off from their souls and cultures.”
But before much longer came our parting of the ways. How? Well, Chris had written another novel, called Birdsong Street—which for me was his half-despairing complete indulgence of his darker side, concerning an anonymous urban wreck of a landscape centered around a street laid out like a Schutzstaffel S, where every man and his guns were a law unto themselves and whose denouement was a full-blown Texas-style war between its gangs and the police. “I’ll kill anybody who tries to change this place,” said his blood-soaked lead character near the end. It was a far cry indeed from Cement Piano: I told Chris why it so dissatisfied me and why I felt it was less than I knew he possessed. That didn’t go over very well. He was increasingly fed up with trying to please anybody—even as the joy of his discovering that he had a full-grown daughter living in California lit up his life in deep and unexpected ways. Just as we began to drift apart I could hear, out of that and his trip to get to know her, a profound warmth and wonder in Chris that I’d never quite heard before. He was crazy about her, elated as ever I’d seen him that she dug him, too, for exactly who he was.
Secondly, in my own career-despair, I’d applied and been accepted to Brown University Graduate School, thinking there might be a life in teaching (there isn’t, thanks to business, of course). To keep my blood wild in the stately soul-freezing halls of the Ivy League, Chris generously sent me Lester Bangs’ exuberant collection of rock’n’roll essays called Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, inscribing it thus:
Dirty Doctor Dempsey Drags Boffo Bangs to Brown: Result is Distaff Delirium & Femme Fatalities—Antics for the Annals of Academia. If History is Bunk, who gets the top and who gets the bottom? Doc, I don’t feel so good. Chris Pfouts, August 2 1992: the dirt on the edge of the book is a bonus.
The next year, as early high hopes of a new life sank into the grad-school-grind’s realities, I wrote to Chris expressing my dour disappointments. His terse reply: “I get more cheerful letters from guys in prison.” And he was right, I knew it even then—but it took me years to bust through all that and get life going again. Meanwhile, we fell out of touch. And while I kept the best eye I could on Chris’ doings via the Internet, I could never coax him to reestablish our connections. I don’t blame him one bit for walking away from my privileged whining—not one bit. But I always will regret that I blew the friendship this way, that we had gone our ways after years that did so much to bring out my best as a man and writer.
Chris, I will always miss you, always appreciate how much of yourself you shared. Stay with me, because I need your courage and guts, your refusal to bow before anything, your multi-sided creativity and joy in life to which anybody living should aspire. I’m only proud to be one of the many who knew, appreciated, and loved you like a brother.
When I thrill to the wild Cretan thunderstorms over the mountains where I live today, I’ll know it’s you, roaring across the sky at last on that mighty Indian Chief you always dreamed.