The funny thing is, I didn't know Joe that well.
He was only an acquaintance really, a drinking acquaintance, not a close friend of mine by any stretch of the imagination. A ship that passed in the drink and drug soaked long dark night of my soul. So why was it that when I heard of his death, six thousand miles away, and more than a sober year or two after our last contact, that I was moved to tears? I cannot find a full explanation yet, it remains a teasing and tantalizing will o' the wisp, dancing on the peripheral fringes of my consciousness. Perhaps in writing this and recounting the facts of the matter, I will be able to find some resolution, as I still get teary, some thirty years later, when I think of Joe, and the manner of his end.
I had moved from London, our English capital city, to Brighton, a small seaside holiday town about sixty miles South, with it's more provincial ambience. Also, as a holiday resort, it possessed a subclass that derived much of it's income from the periodic influx of tourists. These people ranged from those who provided legitimate services, such as board and lodging, a well known genera including such sub-species as seaside landladies and hotel workers, to the more exploitative, such as bargirls, and the downright predatory, such as pick-pockets and pimps. Graham Green in his novel Brighton Rock, gives his grim, gray, grainy portrait of these under classes, with their admixture of petty criminality, that populate this underside of Brighton society; and the sordid parabolas of fungal doom that constitute the nightblooming of their lives. Probably not so different from many towns whose income is in some large part derived from similar sources.
Joe, earning his living as a beach photographer, was mid-range in his grubby occupation. A bit exploitative of the visitors, with his persistent persuasive importunings, as he prevailed upon tourists to purchase his services, hawked on the promenade and lower beachfront, without going as far as to actually insert his hand into their pocket. Myself, drinking within bar patios on the lower beachfront level, had plenty of opportunity to observe Joe ply his trade. Manipulating vacationers with what I now realize was an underlying, but ever present, driving desperation. Joe would be a clown for people, mock himself, present himself in any way he thought would ingratiate. He uttered his smoothly flowing conman patter, it poured out of his mouth without seeming effort, as he at times literally capered in front of a prospect whose path he had blocked. Joe had the gift of the gab. For me, this was observed mainly during the daytime, on sunny public holidays or weekends, which attracted me to the vicinity of his beat. Lucrative times for Joe, but he was probably similarly engaged most other days too, unless it was raining, or too cold and windy, or all three, on that coast of frequent hurtling squalls. God knows how he got by in some of the savage months of Winter.
Now and again Joe would take a break, and join the company for a beer, camera slung around his neck, like some disreputable reporter from the holiday beachhead, before resuming his endeavors. Conversing and joking around, always active and animated, bouncy with a cheerful ready wit, nut-brown from the regular exposure to the sun that he absorbed as the condition of his line of work, he was an entertaining companion. Perhaps a bit of a rough diamond, with his short crew cut hair lending an oafish look to his short and stocky build, part soldier, part gangster thug. Though he hardly stood out in this seafront assembly of drinkers, daylight ladies of the evening, hustlers, midday drunken tourists, misfits and ne'er do wells of every stripe. You understand, the usual potpourri of riff raff to be found in such places. For all his chunky masculinity, I never saw Joe with a woman. It's not that he gave any indication that he was gay. He just seemed more at ease and more often at home in the company of men. Though in all conscience, he was seemingly as relaxed when my then wife was present drinking with me, passing the time of day with her in amiable chit chat and superficial banter. Joe gave no indication of superior education or culture either. His language was commonplace, salty and vulgar on occasion as it might be. He never infringed on a topic of any meaning, all was pitched on a mundane everyday level. Only the quickness of his sharp wit at times revealed there might be more intelligence to Joe than was normally allowed to be visible. Of course, even in those quarters, as elsewhere, rapid wit and skills at repartee gain their owner respect, so Joe probable felt it safe to show them.
One late sunny Sunday morning, Joe entered the seafront bar I happened to be patronizing. After buying his first drink, he began pitching me his service. Making me a "mark", a "John", a breach of ethics really, you don't con your own tribe. But I was not a close member, a hippy, with long hair, a full beard, unusual for that time and place. I had financial status too, owner of a car and a three-bedroom house, host of noisy weekend revels to the town's gallimaufry of colorful characters. But his likeability was disarming, the amount of money was small to me, and I enjoyed the pitter of his patter and the easy grace with which he propositioned me, taking it all in with detached amusement while knowing exactly what he was doing. I also knew, he would take something back from whatever I gave him, at the special cut rate that he was using to tempt me, (after all we were friends weren't we, so he was offering me a good deal on that basis). I just knew he would screw me somehow. My intuition was vindicated later when he gave me the roll of film he took, leaving me to pay for the cost of developing it, with some barefaced shameless flim-flam explanation of why he was doing so. I just laughed. Now I see the covert desperation was his driving need for money to drink. Perhaps on some inner level I knew and sympathized, feeling more fortunate, as my need for drink and drugs was just as driving, but my means were more equal to my needs.
I would also see Joe in another bar, or a pub as they are also termed in England, a mostly weekend evening hangout, where I often sat in with the musicians. This was one of the several pubs we frequented that sold British apple wine. Because it was home produced and carried no import tax on it's alcohol content, it was comparatively pretty cheap, as strong as sherry, relatively palatable, and with the well-deserved reputation for creating a crazed drunkenness. This of course only added to the popularity of Merrydown, as it was named with a touch of drollery. Several times, early in the evening, which perhaps accounts for the fact that I was conscious enough to retain the memory, Joe would join me at the bar. This was in fact where he returned the undeveloped roll of film to me on one occasion. He would order a glass of Merrydown, which arrived in a capacious tumbler, full to the brim, and leave it on the bar. He would ignore his drink, chatting casually, as if it were of no interest, as if he had half forgotten it. After a few minutes or so, as if catching sight of it, as if vaguely remembering what he was engaged in, "Oh yes, I have a drink somewhere don't I?", he would pick it up with a smooth rapidity, raising his glass as he tilted his head back, and drain the entire contents in one set of swift gulping swallows. Then swinging the glass down in a wide arc to crash it on the bar, he would look at me and state rhetorically, "We're such bastards Brian, aren't we? Such bastards!" And then order another, and another, and another, each accompanied by a repeat performance. The dissembler with beads of sweat on his forehead. That were not created by the warm evening. Now I realize how badly Joe needed those drinks, he had reached the stage of physically addicted alcoholism, and I was close on his heels. So why the charade? What was he hiding from whom? Not wanting to admit his "weakness", I guess he wanted to keep some shred of self-respect, some fašade that hid reality as much from himself, as from others. Pretending he wasn't so desperately in need of the drink that in actuality he was so desperately in need of.
Now if the party, i.e. the drunken debauch, was not at my house, mostly we would congregate at Grace and Gordon's basement flat, and Joe would infrequently show up there too, late into the night. Grace was known even among us as an as an outrageous alcoholic. Arising around noon, she would spend two hours putting on her makeup with shaking hands, while consuming large glasses of Merrydown, or anything alcoholic that had been donated by a guest the night before. Or lacking a commercial product, resorting to her still cloudy homebrewed wine, that had barely finished fermenting. Ugh! Every morning, without fail. By nightfall she was roaring drunk and ready to party. Gordon was a fabulous, almost mythic figure. Sporting a military moustache, a relic of his service in the army, which he detested, the thinning hair was drawn back into an incongruent silky blondish ponytail, barely concealing his balding crown. Again an even more unusual deviant appearance considering his age, at this time and in this place. Gordon loved his drink too, was highly enamored of pot, and took far more amphetamines than he let on. Grace smoked weed if it was around, as did most on this scene, but booze was her first true love without any question. Both of them were some ten years senior to myself, at that time in my early thirties. Grace latterly was taking pills for the flashes of light across her vision, and the sudden pains shooting down her face. It was so obvious her drinking caused them, except to her Doctor of course, to whom she probably lied anyway. After I left I heard she was admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of some kind of "nerve problem." Ha! I'll say. From Grace and Gordon I think I remember half hearing in some dim hallucinatory state, the story that Joe had once owned a nightclub in South London, but had had it taken from him by the coercion of some brutal gangsters. That would account for his air of toughness. And then, during his descent, his wife had deserted him. You might think this was Joe's tragedy, but I now see it was so much more than only that.
One night, around one or two am, Joe shows up at Grace and Gordon's. He is as stoned as we are, and sits slumped in silence, almost collapsed, in an armchair. The music is turned down low, and the conversation sluggish and intermittent, all of those present being in their own sunken state of chemical torpor. All of a sudden, during a pause, a moment of silence, Joe begins to speak. To recite actually. Joe is reciting a lengthy poem.. from memory. And not only that, he is expressing himself with a phenomenal artistry. Every nuance of feeling, every scintilla of meaning, Joe is wringing it out of the poem, displaying the delicate, sensitive, subtle sensibilities of a truly poetic soul. His eyes are dull with a distant look. It is almost as if he is semi-conscious, and some other inhabitant of his inner world is speaking through him. Some deeply buried part of him has sprung to life, and Joe himself seems almost unaware of what he is doing. In the doom ridden besotted gloom we are entranced, enthralled, held spellbound by his words and their meaning, in one of those rare jeweled moments of timeless eternity that are occasionally found set amongst the dregs of drugged and drunken time warps. Who could of known Joe had this in him? I cannot even recall the poem at all, but I know it had greatness, a loveliness that Joe crystallized out of his own being. I only recall the feelings of sacred awe at witnessing the beauty of Joe's hugeness, and the quality of his intellect and sensitivity, that could penetrate and encompass on every level, each and every nook and cranny of his poem. For all I know, he wrote it himself.
So the real tragedy of Joe Rowley was one of this more significant loss. The prostitution of his talents, wasting himself to survive. That sadness in some place inside breeding such guilt, remorse and self-hatred, "We're such bastards Brian, aren't we? Such bastards!" As he was forced to abandon and betray himself over and over again. Never knowing that his addiction to alcohol was relentlessly consuming his life and being, completely out of any control by who he thought he was. The victim of a state of mind and body of which he had no comprehension. Never knowing of his own goodness. Never cognizant of his own great heart and the sweetness of his shining spirit, which stood so briefly revealed in those phantasmagoric moments, when the curtain of his lesser being was drawn aside. Driven down to ever-lower depths of self-degradation and self-destruction by the scourge of his alcoholism. Till he reached that inevitable terminal nadir, that deep pit, so deep that the only escape from it is through the still deeper bottom that is death. The news I received, later and so far away, was that Joe had choked on his own vomit, while unconscious from a combination of alcohol and sleeping pills, like so many before and since. This was his swansong.
And my sorrow for Joe.. perhaps is not only for him.. perhaps this is the explanation for that fleeting recurrent source of tears. I see so much of me and my life reflected in Joe and his life.. so much of what was true of him has been true of me. And then there are the myriad matching marching cohorts, past present and future.. treading some such path to some such similar an end.
I never had that film Joe took of me developed.. I lost it some time ago... somewhere along the way.
By Brian Green Certified Chemical Dependency Counselor. Personally sober 30 plus
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