Preston A. Laris, In Memoriam
We had walked through fire together. He the protector; me, the snide sidekick with a middle finger to the world. No one understood my pain as he, and visa versa.
Another sad visit to Staten Island, and I again return with a bagful of CDs, vinyl and comic books, and, new to me, a science fiction story Preston had labored on for years. I shall read it "Ulysses" get to the back of the line) even if I lose the thread of his complex imagination.
For the last several years I could only manage one phone call to Preston every month or two, sometimes even longer intervals. I let him ramble on and on about Jimmy Page and Led Zep, even though he knew I had lost interest in anything Zep related after their second LP. Preston and I and David had seen the band's debut at The Fillmore, when they opened for Iron Butterfly (captured on a brutally-titled bootleg, "Butterfly Hunting") and our collective minds were thoroughly blown apart, not from the mescaline and pot we dropped and smoked, but by their megaton performance, violin-bowed wah-wah guitar and all. We were totally captivated by this new heavy blues sound. On first hearing, Preston and I were addicted to Zep's first LP, which we played over and over every single day. Nothing else gave us that wallop every time we put the needle down. But after their second LP, I was bored and lost interest. For me, nothing was as perfect as their debut. All that da-da-da shit and Arabic overtones bored the crap out of me. But Preston never lost his devotion and that was fine. I just didn't share his interest in them and, besides, we had other bands to groove to, mainly Cream and Hendrix, when we'd get wrecked daily while cutting school. We intuitively analyzed and absorbed every string bend, vibrato, double stop, hammer/on, pull-off and arpeggio from the Gods of guitar we worshipped.
So our phone conversations would center on Preston's expounding on Zep's virtues and then tangentially spin off to things like string theory, when I'd have to take the phone away from my ear and let him go on and on. He was often in great emotional and physical pain and would become highly emotional, wishing we could go back in time to the days of 3B, his apartment on Ocean Avenue. He also had numerous physical problems that he refused to get treatment for, terrified that he would wake up during general anesthesia as he swore had twice happened. He truly was like a brother and we were both battered around by life. He had no father; I had lost my mother and, in essence, also my father who was overwhelmed and distracted by the horrible second marriage he had entered into. Teachers had only succeeded in making us feel like failures and worse. The world to us was a hostile place. Only a few friends could be trusted. We had walked through fire together. He the protector; me, the the snide sidekick with a middle finger to the world. No one understood my pain as he, and visa versa. Adolescence to us was like a meat grinder. Girls bewildered us. Grown ups we basically hated, with rare exception. And school seemed an empty waste of time. I wish that all wasn't so, but it's the truth. My SAT score? Zero. I didn't take them and I'm pretty sure I was oblivious that they were even given. The Prom? I have no idea if there was one. Talk about cautionary tales: Mother, tell your children not to do as I have done...
So now, after carelessly destroying his body with alcohol, Preston's ashes reside in a silver urn and I have this fifty-page science fiction story to devour. Hopefully, it'll bring me closer to him.
Preston, as hard as life was, I respect you for the things you did accomplish. The disappointments, the frustrations are no longer important. I suppose they never were. It's hard not to feel regret over opportunities missed (we never played in a band or recorded together), but that's the way life spins out. I miss your presence every day, and hope I can find comfort once more in the love you always had for me. I've still got my middle finger out to the world. I still believe in the music that saved us, and I accept, sadly, that no one will take your place.
It's a gloomy Sunday on Staten Island and I'll hit the road shorty from the Dunkin' Donuts, where for some stupid reason they put granulated not powdered sugar on the jelly donuts. All the comics and Fillmore programs and ticket stubs of yours that I had coveted, sadly, don't add up to much, and only confirm the fleeting joy and heartbreak of life. We did the best we could, We followed our hearts. We stood up for the things we believed were important. The world took too much from you, Preston. I'd like to punch somebody because of that. I guess I'll just exhale and get back in the highway. "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."
I wrote this several years ago, the springboard for a longer piece I hope to finish. I post it here because it captures the man, my pal, Preston, in one of the most iconic moments in his life. He single-handedly beat the crap out of two lowlife hitters who had been begging for a beating. They came to the right man. Rest in peace, Notserp.
"Come on, Bobby. You're a Bedford Boy."The voice came over the bare wooden floor like that of a bleating animal, soon to be a bleeding animal: "Come on, Bobby. You're a Bedford Boy."
As if the pack of late-afternoon losers that gathered to smoke, drink and intimidate the younger kids of the Park on Bedford Ave and Ave X qualified as some sort of exalted crew. More like a collection of drop-outs whose future couldn't be etched in the sand of the nearby beaches. Bobby lifted his wracked body up from the floor at the command of Johnny Bartell and threw his shoulder into Preston, who was wailing on Johnny with all the hatred and steam of a man-child that had had enough of these two low-lives turning his mother's apartment into a half-way house for the down-heads and miscreants who returned there night after night, thanks to the cowardice of Izzy, who had given up the apartment key while Preston was on vacation with his mother several weeks earlier. Bobby's shoulder made little impact on Preston, a fifteen-year-old with a full-man's body. He shoved Bobby's face away and gave Johnny one more slug to the gut, rendering the muscle-bound boy to a heap.
"We'll get you, Laris. Don't worry," he sputtered as the two fled out the apartment door, but not in time to beat Preston to the door, who pushed them both down the third-floor staircase on the Ocean Avenue building. "Just try it," Preston yelled. "Just try and come back."
"You can come out now," Preston said to the two friends cowering in the small bedroom. "What the hell are we gonna do?" asked Richy, Preston's buddy since third grade, fine-boned and smaller than his protector. His fingers could glide on the guitar-neck, but his tongue was acidic and lashed out indiscriminately at whomever was in his vision. He was a confused flower-child with a well-spring of hate, the source of his anger a direct result of the lousy deal he got when his father foolishly married into another family, domineered by a loudmouth wife, just two years after his mother had died of a cerebral hemmorage.
"You are not gonna do anything," said Preston. The tall, lithe figure of Susan exited the bedroom and surveyed they damage of broken furniture, cigarettes and various destruction that lay scattered around. All in the circle of 3B had a thing for Susan, a year or two older than the rest of the group, with a quiet charm and private demeanor. But not Richard. His ardor was reserved for a golden-haired classmate, though he was too consumed with passion to ever utter a cohesive sentence to her or in any way reveal the depth of his disabling infatuation. And he was like-wise immune to the affection showered on him by Judy, a pretty brunette entangled with the wrong crowd, who would get stoned on downers and beg for the clueless guitarist to exhibit any interest in her. None ever came.
"I'll deal with those scumbags if they come back," Preston ordered. "Today was the day I became a Laris. A Laris," he repeated with emphasis. Preston wasn't a kid looking for trouble, but neither one to step back from it, his towering frame and hefty bulk marking him a prime target for small-minded toughs who roamed the streets, allys, courts, avenues and back-roads of Sheepshead Bay.
There was a time, though, not that long ago when they didn't have to deal with those hitters... (to be continued)
How's this for a memory: the only time Preston nearly hauled off and really clobbered me was a disagreement over who was the better bass player: Jack Bruce or the bass player for Herman's Hermits, who had some great recordings outside the novelty junk. I can't recall the back and forth, but by age fifteen my tongue was razor sharp and I knew how to and instinctively pushed the buttons. Hard. Of course, there was no room for "agree to disagree" bullshit among friends, it was a flat-out rank-out contest. I can only remember Preston lifting me off the floor of his 3B apartment on Ocean Ave and throwing me against the wall. I recovered pretty quickly, but kinda knew in my stupid stoned brain that even he had his limits. As it turned out, the bass player (and oftentimes producer) on those HH records was John Paul Jones, later of Led Zep fame, of course. So, musically speaking, it was probably a tie! Rock on, Preston