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My book, but not my story

Ernie Coleman.

I look out the front-room windows. Damp, foggy, just another Rochester day. But it’s not, it’s not just any other day for me.

This is the official publication day for my book, “22 Minutes.” I use the word “official” because the books have already been printed, they’ve been sitting in a Pennsylvania warehouse, waiting for you.

And I use the words “my book,” even though it’s not my story. In 2012 I sat down with a 93-year-old man, Ernie Coleman, and listened to him talk. “22 Minutes” is his story.

Like most good stories, Ernie’s story was actually several stories, all intertwined.

There is the story of Ernie as a teenager from East Rochester High School who takes a series of jobs to help the family through The Great Depression: hustling as a golf-course caddy, working a fox farm to provide furs for women’s coats, assembling explosives in a fireworks factory.

There is the story of Ernie the carpenter. Building houses, building sailboats.

There is the story of Ernie the sailor, a legend on Lake Ontario.

There is the story of Ernie the family man. He built that family through four marriages, adoption, stepchildren. Ernie was candid, he told of the affair that destroyed his first marriage, the tragic deaths of his second and third wives. Some of the kids zigged this way, some zagged that way, there were successes and strife. One of his daughters was gay, and fell into a life of drugs and abuse at the hands of her partner. There were reconciliations.

There is the story of Ernie joining the Navy during World War II. Tales of going AWOL, of getting in a brawl with zoot-suiters, of running a Navy carpenter’s shop at Pearl Harbor that brings to mind the scamps of the old TV show “McHale’s Navy.”

And there is Vincennes. Ernie’s ship. One month after Ernie was assigned to the cruiser, after it had sailed out of Pearl Harbor, Vincennes was sunk in a brutal battle that was a part of the Guadalcanal campaign. Three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser were sunk, about 1,000 men died, 332 of them on Vincennes. It was the worst open-sea defeat in the history of the United States Navy. And it took the Imperial Japanese Navy only 22 minutes.

That’s the 22 minutes of “22 Minutes.” A brief moment that haunted Ernie for the rest of his life.

When we sat down together that first morning in 2012, that’s what I really wanted to talk to Ernie about. The Battle of Savo Island. But it brought back the nightmares. And we never spoke of Vincennes and Savo Island again.

The book we produced together, “Chasing the Wind,” was filled with details that Ernie summoned from his remarkable memory. But Vincennes? That became my detective story. And over time, I pieced together what had happened to Ernie that night off Savo Island.

We self published “Chasing the Wind,” and I took Ernie all over the city with the book. Book clubs, readings, even folk-music concerts. We sold 1,200 copies, pretty good for a self-published book. Ernie couldn’t believe people were so interested in his story, that they wanted him to sign the book. He was happy to talk about sailing, and other aspects of his life. But he never talked about Vincennes. “It’s in there,” he’d say, pointing to the book. He never read those chapters.

It wasn’t over. I had several literary agents tell me that I needed to re-write “Chasing the Wind.” Put myself, and my relationship with Ernie, in the book. And keep alive this chapter of American history, Savo Island, and the heroism in defeat, that is overshadowed by the final successes of the Guadalcanal campaign.

“Chasing the Wind” became the book within the new book, “22 Minutes.” The new book fills out Ernie’s story, adds my own impressions of this hero, our trips to retirement homes and book signings, and how he dealt with his own approaching mortality. We even see that Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, led a 2015 expedition that found Vincennes on the Pacific Ocean floor, where it had rested in the quiet darkness for decades. Billionaires have those kinds of resources at their disposal. We just can’t help ourselves, gawking at our tragic histories.

So, with all of that, this long process, “22 Minutes” isn’t simply, “My first book.”

We’ll have a party next week to celebrate the publication, 6 p.m. May 9, at the fabulous Record Archive Backroom Lounge. You’re invited.

An idea of what a man is, for the 21st Century

I wrote this interview with morgxn for Record Archive, where the pop star performs and has a meet-and-greet at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The sound was in morgxn’s head: A modern mix of pop and electronics. But no one else in his hometown seemed to be hearing it.

“Growing up in Nashville, to me, was like the genre didn’t exist,” he says. “When I was growing up, there was nothing except country music, and I knew that wasn’t me. Personally speaking, Nashville was a hard place to be an outsider.

“Honestly, I think I had to leave Nashville to figure out what I wanted to say artistically, and how I wanted to say it.”

Morgxn – pronounce it just like “morgan” – sold everything he owned, except for what fit in a suitcase, and moved to Los Angeles. Where he found the right ears. Hollywood Records, a label that loves that edgy mix of pop, rock and circuitry; Rochester’s Joywave is also signed to Hollywood, offering a similar sonic sensibility.

Last year Hollywood released morgxn’s major-label debut, Vital. It is the outsider sound that he was hearing. Alternative pop, backing his sweet soul voice. And Vital carries powerful messages for people like him, who feel treated as outsiders. People who identify along the diverse spectrum of LGBTQ. Morgxn brings that message to Rochester Wednesday, with a 3 p.m. performance and meet-and-greet in the eclectic Backroom Lounge at Record Archive.

That move to LA was eight years ago. And at first, it seemed to be working almost magically. Within days, he’d scored a random invite to a music-industry party at The Village, the studio where Bob Dylan recorded Planet Waves and Frank Zappa made Joe’s Garage. “I was there with someone from Nashville, completely fresh to LA,” morgxn says. “And this woman said to me, ‘Do you want to meet Stevie Nicks? Turn around, she’s right here.’ And Stevie Nicks was six inches away from me.”

But soon, six inches became miles. Morgxn was writing songs and performing, then booking one-way plane flights to another city, in search of that elusive opening. Working day jobs to survive. Teaching piano and voice in LA, selling real estate in New York City, showing off apartments he could never afford.

“Having a dream sometimes feels impossible until it’s happening,” morgxn says. “I was about to give up and go home, back to Nashville, and I was going to what I told myself would be my final job interview in LA, at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment. And I was thinking to myself: What if people come in and see me there? I’m not doing music, I’m here.

“I walked back to my apartment, and in my mailbox, from when I had sung over a DJ, was a check from that performance. It was enough of a nod from the universe to keep going.”

Morgxn’s confidence had been tested. “There were many times when the idea of how to keep going felt insurmountable,” he says. But his perseverance paid off in 2016 when he began releasing singles on his Wxnderlost label: “Love You with the Lights On,” a cover of Duran Duran’s “Notorious” and the rocker “Home.” Joywave jumped on board with a remix of “Home,” helping to boost morgxn to over 4 million online streams. In October of last year, morgxn was joined on Jimmy Kimmel Live by EDM-fueled rockers Walk the Moon for yet another a version of “Home.” There, morgxn wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “The Kids Are Not Alright,” which ties in with his work with Covenant House, which “takes youths off the street, and gives them the tools to get back on their feet,” he says. “A lot of them are LGBTQ identified, and a lot of them have been kicked out of their home because of that.”

Finally, the unreal feeling of being introduced to Stevie Nicks at a music-industry party, and her actually taking the time to talk to this kid, was becoming reality.

“She probably wanted to find any excuse to get away from the execs,” morgxn says. “We were sitting next to each other on a love seat, and she imparted her mentality about LA. Without really trying to, I took that to heart.”

Here’s what he’s taken to heart: Personal authenticity. And he found that reinforced by another Rochester connection. Teddy Geiger. The Rochester-raised, one-time teen heartthrob is now writing songs for One Direction, Maroon 5 and Shawn Mendes, and late in 2017 announced she was coming out as a transgender woman.

“We met at a few parties,” morgxn says of Geiger. “And after she was coming out, it was important for me to give her whatever space she needed. But I did I reach out and tell her, ‘I’m still inspired by you and the message you’re bringing the world.’”

As for his own identity, morgxn pauses for only a half-second before declaring: “Human.” The songs of Vital, morgxn says, are him sharing his own life. “It is me,” he says.

“I think what was so hard for me, is the rejection of who you are. Growing up in the South, being rejected for just being yourself, being rejected for who you love, it’s honestly crushing. That’s where ‘translucent’ and ‘Carry the Weight’ connected for me. One is being crushed by something, the other is crushing the oppressor.

“Sometimes people need connections. The conversation about gender and sexuality is not one that can be argued on a senate floor. They are conversations between neighbors.”

And they are conversations between generations.

“Part of world is healing and speaking up about what is real for me and what is real for you,” morgxn says. “I was just in Wisconsin for a show, and that was the first time I talked about how my dad had passed in the middle of making this record. It changed my life completely, and changed the way I make music. This sounds so naive, but I didn’t know how much I would have to talk about my dad. I thought it would be too much for people. But after that show, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you.’”

Translucent. The word is defined by Mirriam-Webster as meaning “permitting the passage of light.” And, “free from disguise or falseness.” The video for “translucent” opens with morgxn auditioning for an acting role. But he’s quickly rejected when he can’t muster the kind of authoritative masculinity that he’s being asked to put into the character.

Light. Truth. “We had a complicated relationship, for sure,” morgxn says of his father. “He grew up in a time where men were supposed to be a certain way. But from the moment I was born, I was different. I came out different, and everything I did was different.

“I think he struggled himself to be able to be the kind of man he wanted to be, he just grew up in a different time. But now, there are no rules to being a man. If he were alive now, he would see how the world is changing. We are the ones changing the world.”

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

When worlds collide

The view from behind The Spring Chickens.

A few months ago, I was complaining to My Friend Alayna that, “Everyone wants me to write for them, but…”

She finished my sentence: “No one wants to pay you. Now you know how local bands feel.”

I don’t mind being thought of in that company, as long as I can feed my dog. But the freelance life is tough. One week in October, I put $4,000 in the bank. The next week, nothing. The week after that, nothing…

It’s the never knowing what’s going to happen next month, next week, that gets to you, while waiting for one of the non-existent jobs I’ve been talking to people about to suddenly appear. So I’ve taken a job elsewhere. At Record Archive. It’s a temporary thing. I’m helping them during a busy holiday, they’re putting some money in my pocket and adding some structure to my life.

This comes after taking a step back and spending a few weeks evaluating the world. I stopped blogging, even. Haven’t done one since – looks like since Oct. 21 – while… well, while just dealing with it.

This should have felt like a triumphant year. The first year in my life that I’ve actually sold a book, 22 Minutes, to be published next spring (See the Oct. 17 blog entry on that below). All year long, I’ve been doing what I want to do, write. Freelancing for WXXI and others. Writing for myself.

But there’s a shadow over every word. It’s been a lousy year. When worlds collide, that’s when we really feel the fragility of existence.

It’s more than this Trump thing. The daily barrage of outrages and lies from our president and his White House communications team, led by its human spit valve, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Reducing the United States to stooge for the world’s despots. For years, I thought I lived in a country that set a high moral standard for the rest of the world. But, no. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who lived in this country and wrote for The Washington Post, was murdered by a 15-man hit squad from Saudi Arabia, and our president’s reaction was: “Meh…” Rejecting his own intelligence reports, and accepting a Saudi argument that the journalist was “an enemy of the state,” Trump argues that such atrocities are acceptable, if they keep down the price of a barrel of oil. And because the Saudis are good clients of our weapons industry.

That’s an economic policy with limits. If Trump were offered a deal that having his fingers and head cut off, and his body dismembered and disposed of, would assure low prices for Americans at the gas pump, I don’t think he’d go for it.

It’s been a lousy year because I looked at the news this morning and saw that America continues down its intolerant path, tear gassing children and their parents at the border. People who are seeking asylum from poverty and violence in their home countries.

It’s been a lousy year because, even though I was laid off by the Democrat and Chronicle 14 months ago and have negative feelings about the place, I still have good friends who work there, and I consider newspapers to be essential to our society. But the company continues to implode. A week ago, buyouts were offered to some of the newsroom’s veteran staff members. Its slick grocery-store product, Rochester Magazine, publishes its last issue next month. The downward spiral cannot be halted.

It’s also been a lousy year because I was driving home one afternoon and, maybe 200 yards from my house, I came across a motorcyclist lying dead in the middle of Lake Avenue, killed just seconds before I showed up. Almost every time I come to that spot in the street, which is virtually every day, I think about it.

It’s been a lousy year because a handful of friends are now battling serious illnesses. And some have died.

My wonderful mother-in-law, Helen, died in October. She was 94. Perhaps you saw her out with Margaret and I over the last couple of years. Until just a few months ago, she was hanging out with us for shows at The Little Café, going out to dinner with us, celebrating birthdays and New Year’s Eve with friends.

Here’s one thing that helps gets you through the tough times: Music. We held a celebration of life for Helen on a Sunday afternoon at The Little Café. Friends made the food. Musicians played. First the Spring Chickens: Scott Regan, Connie Deming and Steve Piper. By the time Maeve and Ben Mac An Tuile were singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the place was packed. Then Dick Storms and Tony Valle, joined by Sarah Long Hendershot, singing “Summertime.” One of my favorite songs. Throughout the music, I was looking around the room. And saw people weeping. Me too.

And then I saw a room filled with friends loudly chattering away, laughing. The pain was gone, the music did it.

Now I’m starting my second week at Record Archive. I have a mixed bag of skills to offer. I cleaned a toilet my first week. Some of my co-workers – the Archive seems to have a strict “No Assholes” hiring policy – were shocked that I had never before touched a cash register. But I have vast experience with the alphabet, a primary consideration when filing CDs.

And it puts me in a roomful of music once again. I needed that.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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