People tend to hyperbolize around death. Eulogists say that whomever died was the best, or the nicest, or the smartest, or the what-have-you-est person they ever met. And we all know that that's usually a nice lie. Because when a person dies, we don't publicly talk about their flaws and we ramp up their good qualities. We put on our rose-colored glasses. We think it's polite.
Well, everything I say in this post is true. I'm not hyperbolizing.
Drew Keriakedes (better known to most people by his circus/vaudeville nickname of "Shmootzi the Clod") and Joseph Albanese (aka "Meshuguna Joe" or "Dexter Mantooth," which he earned because he made his wisdom teeth into a necklace) were sweet, sweet men. Some of the sweetest guys I've ever met—no hyperbole. As Joe's separated wife Kelly Albanese said to me: "Sometimes he was Joe Albanese, sometimes he was Meshuguna Joe, sometimes he was Dexter Mantooth—but what he always was was good to me."
Drew and Joe were weird and witty guys who could mock the hide off a goat, but as sweet as fresh honeycomb. They were, by all reports, always kind to animals, children, and old people. And they were both extraordinarily talented. (Some Stranger notices about them over the years are here and here and here and here.) I never understood why Seattle didn't give them more attention. And I can, in a macabre way, imagine them on the other side of the veil, cackling about how much attention they're suddenly getting that they should've gotten years ago.
"The only, only real tragedy of his life was that more people didn't get to hear his music," Sari Breznau of Circus Contraption and Orkestar Zirkonium (which played in the middle of the street in front of Drew's house at their wake) said about Drew's songwriting. I entirely agree. To hear Drew's sweet, ragged pipes was to love him.*
You can hear Drew singing, Joe playing bass, and Sari singing backup in this circus anthem that is oddly appropriate and showcases Joe and Drew's gleefully apocalyptic sense of humor. Its chorus: "Hey, it's been good to know ya. But the time has come for us to say goodbye. Put on your mask and don your feathered boa. We'll sing and dance until the end of time!"
Sometimes I fantasize about my own wake—don't we all?—and I envy them theirs last night, which showed the breadth and the openness of their lives. There were grizzled old bikers, young punk rockers, nicely dressed neighborhood folks, at least one bearded lady, and a bona fide strongman who kept slapping his hand over his eyes and weeping. People drank beer, passed around huge jugs of whiskey, played and sang and danced. There were musicians—playing trumpets, tubas, violins, banjos, accordions, you name it—who gathered for a spontaneous, tear-filled, hours-long concert in the half-block distance between Drew's house and the cafe that he frequented, the cafe where he and Joe were killed. Drew and Joe were long-, long-time pals. All the way until the end.
And they were pals of mine. Not intimate friends by any stretch, but guys I had enjoyed spending little spurts of time with for many years, and always enjoyed watching from the dark seats in the audience. In fact, at any given gathering—up at Smoke Farm, at a show, at a party—they were the guys I wanted to hang out with. They were funny, smart, witheringly crass, and seemingly fearless. They were, for me, icons of the promise of America and the West Coast: freedom incarnate, doing exactly what they thought was the proper thing to do (even if it was an odd thing to do), but with big hearts and a rare tenderness. They did not always live on the clean side of the law, but even their steps on the far side seemed to shore up their reserves of compassion. Some people who cross the line of the law get mean and hard. Others learn how difficult life can be for some folks and get nicer. Drew and Joe were of the latter kind: sweetheart outlaws.
According to people at the wake last night, Drew asked his own murderer over to his place a few nights ago, a man who seemed to be unhinged and had been kicked out of Cafe Racer a few times. Drew wanted to make a human connection with the man, to help him out. Drew was that kind of guy.
He was also a multi-instrumentalist who mostly played ukulele, and he grew up, according to Sari, in a super-Christian family in northern Florida. Then he abandoned that life. He had been, Sari says, a "one-man circus freak in the woods outside of Portland." One spring a few years ago, she'd come with Circus Contraption to the Oregon Country Fair (more on that weekend, which I think I might have been there for, here). She said she found Drew "lying on his back in the dirt on the road behind where the bus was parked. He was singing 'Over the Rails' [his song, which became a Circus Contraption standard] to the stars by himself. And I thought, 'This is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard,' and I got my ukulele." They joined each other in a drunken, vaudevillian, circus-y jam session in the dust. The deal was sealed. Drew was in the Circus.
Joe grew up in a family of wise-ass New Jersey Italians and mostly played standup bass—jazzy American circus stuff by profession, though friends last night said he was an insanely good prog-rock player with wicked speed who never quite found the right band to showcase those talents. "You've seen him play," Kelly Albanese said. (In fact, he and Drew played my wedding a few years ago, as a favor, in exchange for all the food they could eat, a bottle of whiskey, and whatever I could afford to pay them.) "His fingers were just a blur! He loved the strings and the strings loved him. And his fans loved his love for playing."
Joe was a mellow savant who had a gift for puns. ("That sounds ridiculous," Sari says, "but it was sheer genius how quickly he could make associations so quickly and deeply in his brain.") Joe was also a leatherworker who'd make his own coats and backpacks out of hides.
Every other Circus Contraption performer, Sari Breznau says, had to put on makeup and get in character before going onstage. But not Drew and not Joe. They were just that authentically odd. "There was zero falseness from either of them," she says. "They were incapable of putting on a social mask." There are funnier and slightly darker stories about both of them—one of them involves Drew farting in the face of one of Sari's sisters backstage, just because he thought it would be funny—but I'll hold them back for now, lest they be misconstrued.
At root, they were both marvelous, unique people who were extremely talented and had lots of good stuff left in them to give to the rest of us. They brought people joy. God broke the mold when He made them.
Goodbye, Drew and Joe. It breaks my heart just to type that sentence.
* In fact, I loved his ragged pipes so much I asked Drew—with Joe on bass and the rest of their band called God's Favorite Beefcake—to play at my wedding a few years ago, even though they mostly played biker festivals and bars. I said the band could eat whatever they wanted from the kitchen and I'd buy them a bottle of decent bourbon for the set and pay them much less than what they were worth but what I could afford. Drew agreed. "One condition," I said. "Please don't play that song with the chorus 'I've got a red-hot pussy for sale.' My grandmother will be there."
Drew said: "I'm not promising anything, but I'll try to slur the lyrics." Drew played the song. He did not, in fact, slur the lyrics, but nobody cared. Completely unexpectedly, in the middle of the set, he started doing vaudeville stunts—lying on a bed of nails while one of his bandmates tap-danced on top of him, hammering nails up his nose, that kind of thing. I was sitting with my grandmother in the back and my new bride rushed up to me and said: "Brendan, your grandmother!" I said, "oh, right," and dragged her up to the front of the stage. Later, I realized that my new wife thought I should take my grandmother out of the room—I thought she wanted my grandmother to get a better view. But my old grandma (who grew up in the South seeing traveling vaudeville and road shows) squealed like a little girl, with a combination of delight and horror, while Drew hammered things into his head. I told this story to someone at their wake last night and he said: "Yup. 'Delight and horror.' That pretty much sums up those guys."