Stop the Show
When Thelonious Monk and Captain Beefheart were Silenced by My Maladies
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When I was 15, I saw Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser at an art house theatre in Dallas. This was 1988, when there was no YouTube, no way to see one of your heroes in action. Hero is a big word, but as a teenager trying to find the meaning of jazz piano, there was nothing straight about Straight, No Chaser. This canvas was bigger than I could ever be. And there he was—splayed fingers, cigarette, crazy top hat, dancing in a circle when Charlie Rouse soloed on tenor. When he appeared at a Columbia recording studio wearing empty frames with round specs, he told producer Teo Macero that he was wearing “invisible glasses.” I was playing keybs in a jazz band at an arts high school, and if there was any musician in the world I felt closest to, it was Monk. I had learned “Round Midnight,” “Monk’s Mood,” and kind of faked my way through the bridge on title track of the film. I could play “Pannonica” and “Monk’s Dream.” “Epistrophy” was a steeper climb, mainly because of errors in the “Real” Book, and “Briliant Corners,” left me stuck in one. “Blue Monk” came easily. But then I saw this man on the screen. My musician friends and I were obsessed with this man and everything he said: “I’m famous, ain’t that a bitch?” “Play any note you want.” And finally, according to the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, “I am seriously ill.” It was the only time he said it to anyone. When he was being treated for schizophrenia, he acted the part. His road manager was terrified he was going to blow his Time cover story.
I later learned that Monk would be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, what was then called Manic Depresson. And I received the same diagnosis. I am sitting here typing this to you right now. Anyone who is around me can attest that I have not gone silent, or incoherent. I’m as weird as a lot of productive people. I can go out in public, I can be myself when I am real in private. I take Lithium, Seroquel, and Clonazepam, which I wish I wasn’t hooked on, but I am here functioning for you now. And I live in a time when people are applauded for outing themselves, so there’s not even anything insane about this disclosure.