Conversations Between the Ethereal and the Unmedicated

"Cuckoo-Bird and Yardbird"
   Charlie Parker on the South Side
    by Charles Shaw

"Once you have known a desire that consumes, you will never forget it for as long as you are able to remember. It doesn't matter what you do. Of course, over time-because remember now, time is the only real enemy of desire-if you manage to escape from it's sway, you will still always see it. Like schizophrenics who continue to be followed around by their hallucinations even after they have become aware they are only hallucinations, we are saddled with them for the rest of our lives. We only learn to ignore them, or regard them without interacting. It takes discipline. Jazz took discipline. Jazz made you be disciplined about being undisciplined"

In the closed down lounge of an anonymous joint after-hours with some red wine and some weed. Laughter and funnels of smoke, both of us are howling with laughter…the laugher of those who know their ass has been beat by something…

Charlie: (staring at joint) This shit put the Holy Ghost in ya…dance your ass right down the aisle. God damn Charlie…!

ME: Thanks, man. Ok, so tell me, why did Dizzy call you "Yardbird"?

Charlie: You know what a Yardbird is?

ME: A pigeon.

Charlie: It's a damn rooster, fool. They just hang around your yard, don't do nothin but eat and look to fuck hens.

ME: I see.

Charlie: But they got a purpose some of the time…to get the hens to lay eggs. The rest of the time, all a Yardbird does is wander around making noise. Dizzy liked to stay home a lot, had a nice wife and he saved his money. Of my five wives, four didn't take too kindly to some of my habits. And I always seemed to have other expenses that took priority over the bills… (He raises his sleeve to show an arm devastated by track marks, dark circles that resemble old cigarette burns)

ME: So you just showed up at his house….

Charlie: …and blew my goddam horn all night right on the sidewalk in front of his house! (laughs) Eventually that mufucka had to come out and gimme somethin'. So, he started callin me Yardbird, cause I always came back around… Dizz was all right. He was my friend, in a world when black men didn't have friends. Course, you can't really comprehend the meaning of that statement unless you're a black man who visits Paris. And Black as you is, Charlie, you aint that black…

ME: Paris…

Charlie: Paris was deep. It was the first time I felt like I was just a horn player tryin to make a living. More importantly, I didn't feel like I was making some goddamn political statement. That was Dizzies thing, man. He knew before all those other cats that just standin there had political clout, just havin the people come out and pay to hear you--pay you to do anything--and more importantly, music you wrote yourself or made the hell up as you stood there. We didn't shuck and jive and tap dance, we just played, and we were cool about it.

ME: So why too did you die so young?

Charlie: I died cause I got sick. I got sick because I gave doctors wide berth. I gave doctors wide berth because whenever I would see them they would tell my wives the only cure for my pain was to deliver large quantities of electricity directly to my occipital lobes, thereby avoiding that annoying little nuisance commonly known as medical treatment. Me they told nothing, except "relax or we'll have to sedate you." If I asked for a glass of water, they would tell me "relax…we wouldn't want to have to sedate you." The funny thing is, they did want to sedate me. They wanted to sedate us all. That way we never asked for nothin…and they never had to do shit.

ME: I'm going to trust that you had a less eventful time in the bughouse than Zelda.

Charlie: Man, every time I was in there all I would be is dopesick, and that was the shit that made me crazy. You young boys got to cop out on that disease shit, claim you were in the throes of sickness, back when that shit didn't fly. We had two choices…it was either because we were moral degenerates, the great brown animals they always told us we were, or it was that we let them tell us we were crazy and couldn't control ourselves and needed to be contained. I knew I was black, and would always be, but bein' black meant I was able to be walk around the streets and bein' crazy meant I couldn't. I sure as hell wasn't crazy. So I just played black and let them make that "bad". It was easier to be bad than crazy. A bad horn player got gigs. A crazy horn player worked the circus. Sometimes you need to be reminded that freedom isn't about large concepts you can't see. It's about the ability to be you and freely walk around.

ME: Who was the craziest?

Charlie: Shiiiiiiiiiit, Monk. That cat was like a voodoo priestess in the goddam bayou, minute the groove came on and he caught it he'd just get up and move, didn't know where he was goin or how the fuck he was gonna get there, but he would just go. Start playin with that hat of his and lookin ten blocks down the street from the theater. He'd move in a circle around his piano and fall back into that seat and pick up right on the beat right where he left off….

ME: What about Miles?

Charlie: Miles owes me twenty-dollars. Why you so curious about the competition?

ME: Why do you view them as the competition?

Charlie: How many ways you need? In our time, there was very little to be given out, and very many of us. Dizzy tried to make it work by grouping cats together for sessions and then raisin the rates. Me, Diz, crazy ass Monk, Miles, Coltrane, Lester, Coleman, Max, Mingus, every damn body. And that shit only happened in Be-Bop. You never had that happen again, that much talent all working together. Having an art form where that much talent could work on something together. But cats still fought about money…and then there were always the outside issues. These things conspired to keep us down, not just the great white menace.

ME: Right… You know, they go around today using all the words and notions that Be-Bop wasqa invented without knowing a single one of your names. And you say the word Jazz they think of the word boring. They have no idea what Be-Bop is or that the Hip Hop was built on the Be Bop, and that the bop influences a generation of writers as well and we get beats and hippies and revolutionaries and the ideas that shaped the cultural revolution.

Charlie: Man, fuck all that. We invented an art form. An American art form. An original American art form. And there aint too many of those in the world, And the sad thing is, our own homegrown art is appreciated more outside our borders than within them. And because niggers made it, and they couldn't figure out how to make their own, they stole our shit and gave us plenty of dope to forget about it. Pretty soon we were given 'em our music for the dope they had stopped giving us. Kinda funny how that keeps happening, doncha think? I mean, when you consider the notion of an entire Empire built on materials plied away from others while in a derangement of the senses, you start to redefine your terms.

ME: IS it all about that? …

Charlie: The first law of physics is that there is no action without an equal and opposite reaction. Whatever we stood for, whatever we represented to them, it caused them to react. And by the way they hit us back, you had to know we hit them hard first. That was what kept some of those cats alive.

ME: But isn't that the story of America? (pause)

Charlie: The story of America is in the graves without headstones, the ones far outside the cemeteries.

ME: What do you think of dope now?

Charlie: I think of her as another ex-wife. I can handle her that way. You never get rid of them completely, and I don't think you really want to either. You wanna know they're alive and safe, but you don't want to see them.

ME: Do you go driving past their houses late at night, hoping to spot them so you'll be forced to pull over and interact with them?

Charlie: I know what you're getting at. I also know where this is headed. The answers you seek you have known all along. Once you have known a desire that consumes, you will never forget it for as long as you are able to remember. It doesn't matter what you do. Of course, over time-because remember now, time is the only real enemy of desire-if you manage to escape from it's sway, you will still always see it. Like schizophrenics who continue to be followed around by their hallucinations even after they have become aware they are only hallucinations, we are saddled with them for the rest of our lives. We only learn to ignore them, or regard them without interacting. It takes discipline. Jazz took discipline. Jazz made you be disciplined about being undisciplined. Dizzy thought it meant be professional…people told me it meant be brilliant, and they told me dope made me brilliant. Dumb ass muthafuckers. (laughs) Dope made me conversant, in that I was recused from diatribe. I was considered affable, and there was no pain.

ME: But again, I have to point out you are identifying yourself as being defined by this core struggle…

Charlie: Yeah, but the struggle wasn't about dope, it was about the energy that the dope masked, and why it needed sometimes to be masked, you dig? Dope needs to be viewed as the effect it is, not the cause they want it to be.

ME: Then that leaves us with tortured genius, which may or may not be true, but certainly was how you came to be marketed, and so scores of young wannabes patterned themselves after you and suddenly to be hip you had to shoot dope…

Charlie: What do you expect? No one knew me. They knew two things about me…I blew a horn and I shot dope. No one was particularly interested in which sections of the Sunday paper I read. They went to Dizzy about that, and that man gave them the business. Don't ask Dizzy Gillespie if has an opinion if you wanna keep your opinion. But my point, young Charlie, is to tell you that I was not responsible for young bloods shootin dope to be like me. They didn't know what it meant to be like me, so they were just acting out a fantasy and using me to justify their own curiosities. I did nothing in my life thinking I would be a legend, man, I just wanted to be called a musician. Some jackass one time was telling people I made everyone in my band get high, I said bullshit, those mufuckas got high their damn self, and you would too

ME: So, why do we only know about your white wife? (pause)

Charlie: Because people actually saw Chan. They never saw the other four. They were there, of course. They were all there. Plus Chan's daddy had money, and so you know, Charlie had to have an angle, right?

ME: You ever meet Jackson Pollack?

Charlie: Shit, I scored weed for that strange ass cowboy. I dug Jackson, though, cause he kinda reminded me of a real excited puppy, a real cute little mutt, right, that would bark and growl and snap at anyone just to impress you. A dog'll roll in shit to impress you, and Jackson did anything to make you like him, and then he would feel ashamed by it…cause really the man just didn't know how to talk to people, wasn't built for it, just like that knucklehead Monk…and that dude would get dronk! I mean he would get fucked-up, and then he would get mean. Wanna fight every damn body. And he would get a royal smackdown and come up laughin. That boy loved to get hit.

ME: But you understood him?

Charlie: I wouldn't go that far. Jackson knew he was tryin to do something different, and everyone told him they didn't get it, that it was just noise. That I understood.

ME: What would you have been like if you were permitted to grow old?

Charlie: I did grow old, man. I just did it on a different schedule.

ME: What would you be today?

Charlie: Bobby Brown. Bobby could move, but he never got nothin right. Havin all the raw talent in the world don't do no one a lick of good if you aint got one shred of common damn sense. If you can't figure out how to manage life. Managing your business is managing your life. Again, that was something Dizzy knew before anyone else did, when all these other cats were just livin for the moment because they were grateful to have been given the moment in the first place. Dizzy always considered the future. I rarely did when I was young, and by the time I was your age I was only considering the future as something that would exist without me. They wouldn't even let me be a musician these days. It's all business now, and as you may well surmise, that was not my forte.

ME: But why? I mean, if I, a person who one day realized it was healthier to talk to manifestations of the various people living in my unconscious whom I projected into the forms of famous dead people I had never met, I imagine that you can tell me how a man who was blessed with a gift like yours could piss it away, or worse, not even know what you had.

Charlie: Because had I survived I wouldn't have meant shit. Haven't you realized that yet? We make the young dead live on precisely because they were taken from us so young. We feel we owe it to them to give them life in our collective minds. When they talk about Karma, they aren't talkin about finding a forgotten twenty in your pants pocket. They're talking about a universal compromise, a give and take, a push and pull, a constant and unending cycle of sacrifice, acceptance, and understanding. That has been all that has allowed us to survive…all of us. I played my role, which was to inspire, to enrage, to engender and to instigate and to propagate…to cre-ate… o be remembered… And you are only talkin to me because I was remembered…

ME: Shit, I'm talkin to you cause I got issues… (laughs)

Charlie: Look at it all like this….there is no such thing as a free meal. I don't care what anyone says, someone has got to pay for that food somewhere. Life is the same transaction on an unfathomably large scale….

ME: Did you have a muse…?

Charlie: Shit….Lady H. She appointed herself, and never abdicated the throne…

ME: What would you have done better?

Charlie: Recognize love.

ME: Once many moons ago when I was young and stupid and would put anything I touched in my mouth-which was around the time I was about two years old, and then again when I was about nineteen-I was running around in circles in the basement of my old house playing with my Lincoln Log set…this is at two, not nineteen, in case you were wondering… I had this foot long flat green piece of roof planking in my mouth and I heard coming from upstairs where my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles had gathered, the rhythmic thumping and clapping of music I turned my outstretched arms toward the stairs and I begin to run up them singing while still clenching this piece of wood between my teeth. I saw just beyond the top landing my family sitting around clapping in unison and laughing loudly and I squealed one of those little boy squeals and everyone turned and saw me exploding out of the stairwell and then they saw my foot get caught up in the sleeping dog and then watched me fall face first onto the tile kitchen floor and proceed to ram that foot long piece of wood a full foot down my throat with a sound that resembled what it might sound like if you squashed a dozen bullfrogs at once--

Charlie: What's the protocol when one of us starts to loose their grip on the conversation?

ME: I do have a point, you know…

Charlie: Well, by all means, don't hold back on my behalf….

ME: Every time I heard music from that day forward I would feel my head jerk back involuntarily and I would feel that pain in my throat and I would gag involuntarily for a moment. Nonetheless, despite this rather awful impediment, I developed a deep love for music.

Charlie: So what did you do? (pause)

ME: The solution was equally spontaneous. One night, during the second such phase in my life in which I managed to put everything I got my hands on in my mouth, I had ingested two hits of rather potent LSD and found myself dancing with a friend in my apartment. I remember approaching the stereo to change the music, and found that I could not get any closer because the music itself was flowing out of the speakers at a greater rate than I could advance on it, like an open fire hydrant. You see, music…sound…is just like wind of gravity….it has an equal active-reactive force as any other physical phenomenon. So any time I heard music, the force of the music suddenly hitting an area once traumatized by the same energy force caused a reaction, just like cold or heat or smoke or a punch.

Charlie: And so after that it didn't bother you?

ME: No. After that it just tickled?

Charlie: And so, by being able to see, you truly saw.

ME: It would seem so. So what of the world now?

Charlie: Ask yourself, man. Are the sounds and the voices you are hearing now tickling, or are they beginning to hurt. Or have they been stinging for some time? Most folks would go to a doctor if it were their skin or lungs or joints that kept hurting them. But people still got a hard time attending to their hearts. Believe you me, I know of what I speak. My heart exploded in my chest and it killed me.

ME: So, for the true believers?

Charlie: For good health, regularly recycle your mind and your heart. That means you must continually empty it of it's contents and then absorb new ones. It doesn't matter how it comes in or out, just that it goes in and out. The rest of the process is merely following the equations of form and function. Jazz sounded weird cause it looked weird first. Ponder that, and you ponder the movement behind the curtain. Play on, child, play on….


Charles Shaw is an author, Activist, and the Editor-in-Chief of Newtopia Magazine. Dialogue, in which he converses with famous dead people, arose after he stopped taking medication that he is convinced you wouldn't take either. His work appears regularly in 3am Magazine, Clamor, Punk Planet, UR Chicago, and your local city papers about something or another. In August of 2003 Dialogue will debut on the Chicago stage. Well-heeled, he now lives happily in Chicago, the new cultural nexus…