Lower East Side, 1993. It was one of those days when he was still around and I didn’t care a thing or two about college. “Dreamy,” as his younger brother would put it.
“Well, what do you think, Maddie? Pretty cool huh?” He turned around and looked at me as the turntable started to play again. A discount label handwritten in blue-ink was stuck onto the vinyl album cover. It was about to finish playing Meat Puppet’s “Aurora Borealis”.
He loved calling me “Maddie,” mostly to annoy me. Michael and I came up with that when we were in high school. It never really worked out.
“Not sure about the fingernails buddy.” He had his fingernails painted in red.
“Man… shut the fuck up.” He shook his head, trying to restrain his smile, gave me the finger before going over to window to get a better look outside. The fogged up window looked over some streets and a local tavern that was clad in snow. The turntable was playing static.
It was six in the morning. We went through the cover material for next night’s performances much quicker than we anticipated. We spent the rest of the night jamming and messing with guitar effects. Experimenting with alterations in backing guitar melodies on cover songs to see if they fit or not. Back then we did have songs of our own but they were mostly rough sketches that weren’t ready. We didn’t get the sounds we were really after and lyrically they were too confessional so we largely kept them to ourselves. There were enough bands out there doing that.
Michael Seymour, the bass player, had fallen asleep on the bean bag sofa.
“I am confused, man. You gotta help me out,” I said half-heartedly to test the waters, paying more attention to our reflection on the spinning ceiling fan.
“Sure.” He had his back against me.
“Why didn’t you sing back then? I mean goddammit, for the better half of it Mickey and I were treating this as an instrumental play thing. For Chrissakes, you’re one heck of a…”
Stonewalled. We knew where to draw the line and I wasn’t looking for an answer.
The night before at the radio session, it wasn’t so much about singing. It was a translation of human effort into the microphone. His unexpectedly tall, scrawny body barely containing the voice that it briefly generated. His voice changing from soft to shrill then back again successively as we played each song by complete improvisation. He gave it all.
It was unsustainable. Primordial static played after his final delivery toward the end of the song, done softly in a cappella, stopped echoing in the room. He then leaned forward to coyly whisper into the microphone: “Goodnight everyone.”
Allie Thomas Morrison, then twenty-three years old, was already a distinctive figure in the alternative rock scene. His towering, thin figure alone easily made him a center of attention at band performances, often unnecessary attention, as he would often only be playing lead guitar for bands. He was then known as an extremely gifted guitarist, with his unusual clean aggressive blues playing style and alluringly well-timed use of guitar slides in introductions. There was a certain air of tired tenderness to him, with his long hair, lightly freckled face and his boyish bashfulness, a trait shared with his younger brother Dylan. Of the two, as Dylan would put it, Allie was ‘the real song and dancer’.
Allie’s life, according to Dylan, was “Nothing but a fruitless attempt to go against desire and will.”
I first met Allie in the winter of 1992 at the Postcrypt coffeehouse, when he performed with a friend of his. They were covering Hank Williams’ Lost Highway and he played the backing tracks on a classical guitar. They didn’t make much of an impression as it was too much to process for an audience that just wanted to have a good time.
Back then, he avoided singing as much as he could, opting for guitar playing instead. He was tired of being loaned to incohesive bands: perhaps he noticed that his music career was at idle. He wanted a band of his own. We both played at the same venues and though he said he was only looking for a percussionist, I guess we more or less were bound to find each other. Somewhat subscribing to his view that it made no sense continuing to dabble in the scene when everyone was too preoccupied with making themselves distinctive to get a contract, rather than working with the band, I joined his band. No one knew him as a singer-songwriter back then.
Before anything materialized and before we started getting serious about anything, there was this café that we used to visit every once in a while, to talk about things and doze off. We went mostly for the cheap coffee; he knew the storeowner from past summer jobs. Nowadays, Dylan tries to avoid it whenever he can because to him, “The whole place stinks of him and his fucking stupid humble pies.”
I don’t remember much about the café days, to tell you the truth. That happens when you have someone that is real fun to have around. I do remember the bit about the blueberry pie. That day he talked a bit more than he normally would.
It was one of those mornings after an unbearable night. I gave him a call to see if he was up for another round of coffee. We kept our sunglasses on in the diner since we both looked pretty shot and had nothing to say to each other. In inchoate intensity, morning sunlight shone on the window, which had been fogged up by the steam emanating from hot coffee.
As usual, he ordered a blueberry pie, no coffee this time as he wanted to smoke. I slouched on the bench, fixated by the green-hue reflection of a spinning fan on the black liquid. The steam had fogged up the green tinted lenses of my sunglasses.
“It’s cool looking, mind if I take a look?” He looked at me and smiled. I passed my sunglasses to him to try on.
“How do I look? Don’t flatter me.” He took the faux rose from the vase, put it in his mouth and struck a pose.
“Fabulous, I guess.” I chuckled as the waitress served him the blueberry pie.
“What’s the thing with blueberry pies? You order it all the time.”
“Want a bite?”
“Doesn’t look appealing. What’s so special about it?”
“I can’t begin to explain it unless you give it a bite.” He neatly cut a slice and placed it on my plate.
So I gave it a shot.
“It is sour as hell. You call that a dessert?”
“It is kind of the point. I will try to simplify the philosophical bullshit, so hear me out okay?”
“It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, the blueberry pie was just like any other dessert on the menu. But customers of the diner had always preferred other desserts over the blueberry pie. So a couple of them would always be left in the refrigerator, waiting to be dumped into the bin every night when the diner closed.
“The owner of the diner was puzzled and frustrated by this phenomenon. He put just as much effort in to making the blueberry pie as he did with the others. It wasn’t the blueberry pie’s fault for being shunned, it was not inferior in taste or quality to the others. It was shunned because that it tasted slightly sour and it wasn’t special enough for the customers. Sourness is just the defining flavor characteristic of a blueberry pie.
“So instead of removing the blueberry pie from the menu or making it appeal to the customers, he deliberately left it sour for some time, as a middle finger to those who wanted desserts to be sweet and special…”
“And yet you’re eating it, knowing that it’s a royal middle finger of his?” I interrupted.
“That is a premature way of looking at it. It’s not that simple. It’s kind of a symbolic thing, if you like.” I quickly deduced it was about some boo-hoo lost-love story.
“Oh for Chrissakes… not another one of your god damn B-52 emotional bombing runs again. It better be something…”
“No no no… c’mon, just hear me out okay? Ya fairy.” He giggled.
“You see, at the time, the owner of the diner also had a falling out with his girl. His girl was like a rose, like the one in The Little Prince, but not the kind that could not survive without being cared for. She would do just fine on her own. She just liked the idea of being wanted, so she kept him around for a while. Everyone likes the idea of being wanted and he was no exception. But she never reciprocated as intensely as he would like her to.”
Allie paused to collect his thoughts and smiled at me before continuing; his innocent grin was usually a cynically rhetorical hint of an impending emotional bombardment, some faux sugar-coating.
“So… he tried displaying the exclusivity of his love by making himself less accessible to her. But she never got desperate enough to sense the need to reach him. She had others that she could toy with.
“Then he went soft and she gave in a bit without being too accessible. He realized the fact was, no matter how hard he tried to make things easier or more difficult for her, it would have had little effect since she didn’t care much and in the end, he would only be hurting himself.
“I guess he sort of connected with the blueberry pie in that sense. He felt that he wasn’t being fair to the blueberry pie. So he retracted his middle finger to the whole-wide universe, the thorn in the blueberry pie, if you like, and made it slightly sweeter without compromising the sourness characteristic of the blueberry pie in the hope that someone would find the simple sweetness hidden amongst the sour taste of the blueberry pie and like it as it is.
“And I guess I sort of like that.” He strained to manage a smile with a hint of self-derision before turning his head away to reach for the Camel cigarette pack in the pocket of his white cardigan.
“You know,” he took a drag before continuing.
“It is kind of nice, to know that somewhere towards the end of the exquisite pain brought on by the solitary pursuit for the love of a woman, toxic as it was, there’s always something beautiful and worth cherishing in the end.”
“Kinda like you, with Frankie,” I said.
“Don’t drag her into this. Incidentally, I could’ve really used one of your cigarettes if it weren’t for the coffee.”
“You’re missing the point.”
Winter, 2006. In some ways, I felt like I abandoned him when I left. After the debut album, everyone expected a lot more from him. The touring was tiring and it wore out the depth of the old material. We were so tired of the guitar heavy tracks and we were eager to try something new; Allie bought a Rhodes piano and he’d recorded some demos. We couldn’t quite get the new sounds that we had on our mind and were tired of facing each other. He said he wanted some time alone, wanting to perform by himself in small towns. He missed the anonymity and freedom that he had in the café days and was hoping he could get some of that back. I later left the band for personal reasons but we largely kept in touch.
After his death, I tried to make amends by reaching out to his family, particularly to Dylan. I had a small recording studio of my own and he would come by to try things out and once in a while, he would ask me with a pretence of snide, masking genuine interest in Allie.
I remember being surprised by his remark when he raised the subject for the first time:
“It must had been hard working with him, you and Mickey having to navigate around his emotional fits all the time. You can’t really fault him for that; my parents gave him a shitty name.”
Since graduating high school last year, Dylan has entered the music scene, joining a psychedelic-rock band formed by friends from his high school years. He is, for most of the time, the lead guitarist of the band, but like me; he was also classically trained so he has a little side project of his own with me where he would experiment with different electronic-stringed instruments. He gets heckled enough at music venues, so I try to avoid talking about his brother whenever possible. But I suppose the subject is unavoidable and sure enough, we talked about him again when we had dinner last night. It was the first time we went to a Chinese hot pot restaurant. We had agreed not to discuss anything related to his academics or his core curriculum subject selections.
It was after spending some hours in the recording room, he had been wearing Allie’s ochre yellow wool tweed trench coat and had the blue six string Rickenbacker 330 electric guitar in the guitar case. As it was our first time at a hot pot restaurant, we sat on the bench and went ahead with drinks before deciding what to order from the menu set.
“Hey Maddie, I can’t have those broths with peppercorn. Sorry man.” He gestured at his stomach; his stomach’s a bit sensitive these days. So I said okay.
“I just wish you would lose your stupid blue beanie.” I had just taken it off.
“Why, does it bother you?” I flicked my hair to the side.
“I mean, your blonde locks are nice and all…” He said it in a high-pitch, mock Mickey-Mouse voice. Dylan does a pretty good Mickey Mouse impression.
“Look. Thanks for the synthesizer man; it seems pretty neat. Guess I will be messing around with this thing for the coming week.”
“Hey. It’s cool. Guess you now have another way to annoy the neighbours at your dorm.”
“Ha. Sure, they really hate me there. It’s funny man, you know how thin those damn walls are. But it’s fine, man. We rarely bump into each other since everyone has a different timetable. I also have my room door shut all the time so they don’t recognize me. It is easier to blend in now than it was in high school. I am much shorter than Allie was, so I guess that also helps. Life’s been fine, just quieter than life back home in Malibu, if you were wondering. Look man, it’s not all bad. My cooking has improved, in the sense that now things don’t come out overcooked all the time. I bought this timer thing.”
“Jesus, you’re just like how I was in college. Can’t you at least try to make friends with someone there? I always knew you were a lousy cook.”
“I can’t really find people that I could relate to. I mean there’s this really nice kid living opposite to me and we’d talk a bit, but that’s about it. Guess I am just lazy.”
The waitress came to turn on the stove and we didn’t talk much as we waited for the broth to boil. Feeling uneasy, he turned, away from me, instead to the side facing the reception and drank some more.
“I don’t hate him, you know. Despite all the things that I’ve said before,” he said softly.
“I never said you did.”
Smoke filled our corner as the broth boiled, almost brimming.
“I wasn’t that close to him. He was twelve years older than me and we didn’t have much in common. Growing up, we didn’t get to spend much time together, he was already in college by the time I was six. He wasn’t that funny, looking back… his jokes were so damn dark.
“But we had respect for each other. He had his world and I had mine. I remember whenever he’s around he would be playing Blonde on Blonde or Melody Nelson during midnight and I never made much sense out of it then. I’d like to almost run-over a girl in an expensive automobile and have her fall in love with me, nice plot.” Dylan sneered before being overcome by the weight of his thoughts and sighed.
“I could really use a fine cigarette.” He shook his head.
“Your dad’s okay with you smoking? I don’t have it with me now.”
“He kind of stopped lecturing me on proper etiquette since you-know-what; the hypocrite smoked a pack a day before he met my mother.”
“I mean, you liked Serge’s string arrangements then, if not the French plot?” I asked Dyl’ to sort of briefly avoid the impending discussions and reminisce about Allie.
“The rest of the family, except for my mother, was never really into music. She was the only one that would hear him out and appreciated his guitar playing. I picked up the violin mostly to please my mother and I did not hold music in any regard; I didn’t see much in it. Back then, my dad would tell him that he should get a real job after finishing his B.S.; he dropped out of college and never went home again after he made it. At the time, I thought that was a gutsy move, standing up to dad like that. You kind of wanted to cheer for him then; dad used to beat the shit out of me.
“Then on my eleventh birthday, crazy bastard saved up and bought me a white Gibson SG. You know how electric guitars open the world for a kid. Then I got to know the greats, started buying and listening to records. He would teach me and play me some clean riffs, how to use the vibrato arm. Occasionally he would take me to the café, but I never really understood or appreciated his blueberry pie. The blueberry pie was as much his as it was the storeowner’s.
“Beyond the guitar stuff, we never talked much but I did look up to him and I liked the guy; he could play the guitar well and he really knew how to make someone feel important. I never really got to spend much time with him after he signed the record company’s contract. But from time to time, I’d hear things about him. Some pictures of him and his Porsche Turbo, that kind of stuff. I knew that he never got over breaking up with Cleo; he told me that he felt like he had spent a lifetime with her and that’s a rare thing in life. He said he wanted to take care of her and that love isn’t about comparing each other’s sacrifices. But I had never fallen in love then, I didn’t know what it really meant to be unable to overcome the feeling of failure. After that, when media rumours spread that he started having a fling with some other woman, I assumed everything was fine. Then I stopped caring about him completely when he started doing things that embarrassed the heck out of me. Some polydrug ODs for good measure or hookers if it’s sunny.
“When he died, the indelible feeling of loss didn’t immediately hit me…” he hesitated before continuing, perhaps to clothe his words better after sensing the vitriol from his matter of fact language wasn’t presenting a fair reflection of his true feelings.
“Then I got older. At first, it was a simple void of not having anyone that I could casually jam with. I thought: “Fuck him forever,” and I tried making friends and having them come over, but that never worked. Then when I started to mature and when the negative feelings subsided, I started to accept his music. Then I found that there was a quiet undercurrent to his album tracks, I started to appreciate his music. When I ran out of his album material to listen to, I started listening to his media interviews, wanting to know what he was like. As time went by, I continued listening to them, because I wanted to hear his voice. Later, that ran out as well. That was when I realized how much I had missed him.
“For a while, I remember thinking I was the person to pick up where he had left off. I cherry-picked parts of him that I liked, wearing his clothes, playing his blue Rickenbacker, performing at his tribute concert. I still do that to a certain extent, but I don’t do his songs anymore. I felt awful doing that. I think everyone should stop covering his material because they won’t ever be able to live up to it. The original performances shouldn’t be touched.
“These days, being a musician myself; I just learn to turn it off. I’ve tried not to think about him as much as I could. If I get lucky, on some days I would even forget that he ever existed. But every now and then the radio would be playing his songs… It would kind of make me miss him whenever it’s over.
“And, I won’t pretend that it is easy living under his shadow, with people yelling “Allie Morrison” whenever I go on stage. But I could never sing, let alone write like he did. People need to understand that Allie Thomas Morrison was a one shot performance that even he could not sustain. But I understand why they do it. It is because they all miss him.
“If anything, he was the real rose that needed to be cared for; he just never cared about himself. He didn’t believe in himself, in love or in his ability to do good; fucking poor bastard couldn’t stand his voice; he was afraid that Cleo would get sad if his songs are on the radio. He never believed in anything; Cleo would say the same.
“But he trusted and believed in you, in Cleo, in the band and the music. He was always partially accepting, partially in denial. He said back then he was happy that Cleo’s found someone that appreciated her; I doubt he was. He was probably hurt and mad at himself.
“You might think that he’s left us. But he still sticks around to this day; my mother still occasionally dreams of him remaining forever thirteen years old, playing Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas to her in her room; that’s the hard part. My dad was devastated when he finally realized that Allie would never come home again; he felt that his behaviour was responsible; I guess the recoil of Allie’s death really hit him; he’s gone soft and quiet since his death.”
I went to the dinerthis evening, for the first time since his passing on an autumn afternoon seven years ago. The diner has seen some changes since then. The original owner has let go of his sentimental attachments to the blueberry pie, selling the business to move on and focus on his new cafe in the city. It is now owned and run by former students of a nearby college. The faux rose in the vase was gone, replaced by two real white hydrangeas.
I asked the waitress why this was the case.
“I don’t know. I guess they probably found the faux rose too corny and unfitting.”
I ordered coffee and a blueberry pie, for the sake of rekindling old memories. The pie came lukewarm and was overly sweet.
Despite our significant difference in height, I mostly saw Allie as a little brother of mine. He was a quirky songbird in a good way and he liked asking me for advice even though I was not much older than him. He liked having me sit there in private and listen to him playing sections of a song with different alterations in melody arrangements for me to judge what worked. I’d then come up with a temporary backing or lead guitar track to accompany the melodies.
He knew how to play the piano, but he had quit early for his academics. Nonetheless, he appreciated the impartiality of classical music. Occasionally he would have me play classical piano compositions in our spare time, even though I was a lousy piano player.
I remember this one time when he nagged me enough into playing Federico Mompou’s El Lago for him. It wasn’t too demanding, so I agreed. He just stood pensive in the corner and watched me play the entire piano piece; most people that had requested me to play piano pieces would have a drink in their hand and wander around the room as I played.
I liked that he never commented when I was done playing; he knew I didn’t like that. Music pieces, if faithfully performed, should already establish a tacit form of mutual understanding and appreciation.
This was as close as anyone could ever get to him. He didn’t enjoy people digging too deep into him or being too outwardly revealing.
He said to me, “That would be like committing suicide.”
For some time after Allie’s death, Dylan found it difficult to commit wholeheartedly to his romantic life and I had difficulty speaking to Cleo for a while; I felt that she was partially responsible for his death; she left him when he needed her in search for a more stable relationship; she realised that no matter how mad at him she was, he would never change his reckless ways despite all of his promises to her. He was a dark prince in the making and it was his fault for expecting and emotionally demanding too much from someone who wasn’t mature enough to accept him for who he really was. She just never quite understood him; he also hid a lot of things from her out of the fear of losing her.
Looking back, his unnatural ability to combine and harmonize angst with instrumental progressions of songs were evident in the debut album. The affectations of danger intrinsic in rock music were omnipresent in his far-reaching shrieks; it often ground nicely against guitar chords, but on playback the vocal performances would always flow harmoniously as a predictable and natural progression within the stages of a song. It was the sheer volume and duration he was able to hold when generating unnaturally high pitch falsetto screams that people found unsettling and unpredictable.
When we were writing the lyrics and arranging the instrumental tracks, both of us understood it was important for the music not to be bound by time, or dominated by our circumstances and playing styles at the time, so we incorporated elements of soul and psychedelia to detach the music from being confined to one genre. The studio album ended up being distinctively intimate due to its and the ability to communicate and navigate a listener through hardships on a deeply isolated and personal level. The dynamics of the instrumentation and lyrics within the album were also easy indications of his uncontrollable nature: he was timidly cordial at one remove and forbiddingly detached at the other.
It’s just ironic that he just wasn’t able to have the same success in real life; he was broken, ill-prepared for stardom. It had nothing to offer for him.
The debut album was a once in a lifetime opportunity and will have its place in the analogue recording, alternative rock age. I don’t think I will ever be able create anything in my lifetime to match it.
Tonight, as I stand watching a reflection being subtly played out in the form of an occasionally bent yellow moon over rippling black liquid, I wonder if he ever had the chance to see himself clearly as a person. The blueberry pie may have changed, but the thorn in the blueberry pie remains. A different kind of thorn has taken the place of the old.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Lai is inspired by music. He lives in Hong Kong sometimes, other times not. This is his first published story.