The Day I Met Leroy Jenkins

I am gratified to Jonathan Penton of Unlikely Stories Mark V for welcoming three of my noisier more biting poems. Is It Too Soon? is most recent, written shortly after and in response to our infamous November 8th election. I wondered, in 11 stanzas, if it was too soon to write this poem. But now, just a month later, I wonder if the clock is chiming 12 and that chime is OUTRAGE. Not so much that people are numb but addicted. Addicted to outrage after outrage and Trump serves that purpose. The Birthing is, I feel, one of my best. And A Chaos of Lust, a Pawned Guitar (Remembering Lee Teich) is the most personal poem I’ve published.

I feel that A Chaos of Lust sings on its own, but because the poem is about real people, I’d like to say a bit more about them.

Lee was a drug addict, musician and art student. Our paths crossed at a time when I was without money or prospects. We were roommates in Brooklyn for about three years. Lee was older than me, only twenty-five, but in my eyes he was ageless. Sometimes he looked like a ghoul, other times he was an unstoppable force of nature. I took a photo of him once. He’s very erect, his chest is out, his eyes are bulging. This was typical Lee. He couldn’t just stand for a photograph, he had to gobble up the lens. He lived like Dylan’s tambourine man, one hand always waving free—to cajole, to threaten, or just to keep his balance. He was manic, with many moods in between. I saw him desperate, furious, depressed, joyous, nervous, and always HUNGRY. He had a huge jaw with a set of yellow but strong teeth and that maw was always open wide on the world, gobbling everything in its path, trying to chew it all and spitting out what it couldn’t with dispassion or disdain. He did everything one way, with all the fury of his being, and if you happened to be in his way you had two options: go along or get knocked down, for he would not wait for you to move. He didn’t have time. He was always on the move. There was always somebody to see to trade with or sell to or buy or beg from or if all else failed to try and con. When he touched down it was to consume the drugs on hand, with innumerable cigarettes and alcohol and usually in concert with some form of art making. We had long sprawling conversations mostly about art of all kinds, but he was prone to droning on about how hard his life was, how much pain he was in, how much he needed and how HUNGRY he was.

His writing was awful, like someone had just read Naked Lunch, swallowed a fifth of whiskey and tried to recite it from memory. His drawings were terrible, his paintings worse. For the former, mostly in black ink, he was never without a bottle of whiteout. He used the whiteout as a drawing tool, to carve out tortured intestines over a page viciously attacked with the black fluid applied with pen, dropper or brush. His drawings conveyed a sense of illness. Looking at them was like opening a lid to a can of seething garbage. When he taped one to the wall of our apartment it hovered in the room like a foul smelling vulture. His paintings, just vomit. And he would use anything for paint. I couldn’t keep art supplies in the apartment. He was only good at one thing and that was playing guitar. He could play almost any style. But he preferred playing free and unfortunately he was usually so trashed on drugs when he played that discipline and control went by the wayside. Lee’s Stratocaster arrived and departed the apartment, according to whether it was in hock or not.

Lee taught me about jazz. I didn’t know a single thing about it when I met him. His passion for the music was second only to his passion for drugs. He’d put on Coltrane and we’d flop down in chairs facing each other. He followed the music with his whole body, alternately laughing and shaking his head in wide wonder as if to say, what the fuck was that! or did you just hear what I heard? or contorting his face in an extreme expression of pain as if the music sliced him with a knife. For Lee music was like the sinking of the Titanic and all of the cries of the victims, a force of nature that could only be borne, never overcome. He’d put on the music, we’d flop down in chairs, and he’d produce a bottle. He’d take a long drink and toss the bottle in my lap and say, “Let’s get fried!”

Much of the music Lee played was aggressive, fast, hard, tortured, way too much all at once. Sometimes I couldn’t take it, couldn’t hold my liquor. On the track Atlantis Sun Ra’s organ sounded like the earth being upturned, like massive rocks tumbling and being hurled into the air, lava spitting everywhere. I didn’t get it, could these sounds be called music? But what I had heard was exactly what Sun Ra was trying to evoke—a continent being swallowed by the ocean. This was the grandest of themes: life and death, the forces of nature. But nature is also tiny, delicate, tender, evoked in recordings like Naima, Wise One, Dancing Shadows and Exotic Forest. Lee turned me on to a whole world.

At the time I thought Lee had never been born and would never die. But humans aren’t made to burn that hot. I thought that he treated me very shabbily with his lies and stealing. But now I know he was not an evildoer so much as selfish and ruled by his hunger. Toward the end of the three years I had met a girl and we would go off on an adventure and I would never see Lee again. Just days before that she and I were walking down St. Marks Place and came upon Lee talking to a couple of people I didn’t know. He stopped me and wanted to introduce me. My girlfriend kept going. She didn’t like Lee. I hollered that I would catch up. Instead of making a quick introduction, Lee danced around it with his face fixed into a plastic grin. I kept looking up the street saying, “Hurry up man I gotta go.” Finally Lee said, “Mark this is Leroy.” I looked at Leroy, a small thin black man whom I had never seen. He seemed shy, a bit put off by Lee’s manner, and too polite to just walk away. I said, “Hello Leroy,” and he said hi back. OK I really wanted to go now. Lee said, “Remember Prospect Park?” Wondering what the hell he was talking about I blurted, “Yeah, I know about Prospect Park. I gotta go now.” Leroy was looking embarrassed now, and I thought he might turn and go. I didn’t care. I only cared about one thing at that moment and she was getting further down the street. A few minutes later Lee caught up with us. “That was Leroy Jenkins,” he said. Leroy Jenkins, one of my favorite musicians and whom I had seen play live—from a distance—at a festival in Prospect Park. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said. “I did!” Lee yelled. “You motherfucker,” I said.

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One Response to The Day I Met Leroy Jenkins

  1. angela says:

    Your backstory for Lee’s poem helped create the scene for digesting the words/rhythm. I wish I had read while listening to Jenkins – it put me in a state of controlled chaos, just a bit.

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