While I was still slumbering on the enormo-couch, I heard Martin clacking away on his iMac. He has his own catalog company called Catalog First that he has worked very hard to develop and grow. His energy for everything he does is boundless. When we played in a band together, I was amazed at the amount of press releases, posters, and flyers he could complete while still maintaining a full-time gig. He puts the same energy into his home and his family by constantly updating his house and serving as a coach, dunking booth clown, and supporter of his two boys various activities. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious. Martin’s path in life has been steadfast and linear, while mine has been jagged and disjointed, a series of shortcuts that never worked out. I’m the guy that would always skip college when playing the board game of Life. I never finished college in my real life either, my schooling being interrupted by the week’s latest dream. I have to accept this is who I am. I still dream. I still have goals to make my mark on the world, but I could certainly use a good dose of Martin’s steadfastness.
I packed up my things and headed out to the Brick. I had Martin’s family all get on the bike for pictures. His older boy Canon refused to get on the bike. I tried to convince him how cool the picture would be, but his mind was made up. Perhaps he wants nothing to do with a future of riding long distances alone across America.
I consulted Yelp for the latest cool coffee shop in downtown St. Pete and arrived at a place on Central Avenue called Kahwa. The joint was bustling with people reading papers and iPads, and the smell of fresh brewed coffee filled my nose. I ran into an old acquaintance, Paul Wilborn as I had my morning joe. Paul, a musician and the executive director of the performance space The Palladium, was a great supporter of mine back when I lived in Tampa 13 years ago. He mentioned an idea to get a bunch of Tampa stalwarts from the old music scene and put on a show at the Palladium. I agreed out loud that it would be cool, but then I thought to myself, “Who would come?” I fast forwarded to the show I was playing tonight at The New World Brewery and wondered if anybody would show.
I said goodbye to Paul and walked around for a bit. I came upon a venue called Club Detroit where my band, Joe Popp, used to play in the mid 1990s. I laughed thinking about the time a potato salad fight broke out at a show we did at the club. I had jokingly spit at Todd Tedder, a member of another band Helium Bomb, while I was on stage. He then ran back to the green room and grabbed a huge bowl of potato salad. He brought the side dish to the lip of the stage, looked me in the eye, and then upward at a spinning ceiling fan. A huge grin came over his face and he then hurled the bowl toward the fan. Potato salad spattered everywhere and the crowd started scooping it up and chucking it at us on stage. It was like a potato salad hailstorm. Other objects were also thrown. Jeff Wood our drummer got pelted with a beer bottle and stopped playing to scold the audience, but then returned to the kit and laughed off the newly acquired lump on his noggin. In the audience was Jose Tillan, who would would later agree to manage the band. I have amassed such an incredible collection of memories filled with hilarious moments like the great potato salad fight of Club Detroit. I have led an amazing life.
I decided to go to a well known watering hole called Mastry’s, even though it was just after 11am. I remember coming to this bar before performances of a rock musical version of Macbeth that I did for the American Stage theater company at nearby Demens landing on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront. My eponymous band performed the show for 5 weeks serving as the play’s wicked witches. We broke box office records that still stand to this day with our punk treatment of the Bard’s Scottish play. Over 20,000 people saw the show and local history regards the performance as a success. But during the run, I received a horrible review from a local writer Marty Clear who considered the show the worst play he ever saw in the Tampa Bay Area in recent history. I considered Marty a friend until the review. He actually called me to apologize after he wrote the screed in which he also compared me to Elmer Fudd, but the wound was already deep. The review threw my confidence as my band had been darlings of the press until that point. I believe the review started a downward spiral for me into a deep depression. I have always struggled with depression since I was a young boy and I felt it taking root again as I aged.
About a month after the Macbeth wrapped in June of 1997, I quit the band. I was feeling old at 32 years of age and my debt had piled up. I was tired of driving around in a crappy van and trying to build an audience. I lost sight of my rock star dream – one that I had since the age of 5. We had great triumphs, opening for great acts such as Cheap Trick, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Mike Watt, and Seaweed, but after 2 years of playing and touring like madmen, the rumors of us being signed were soon hushed. I overheard that Ric Ocasek from The Cars who was producing bands at the time, passed on us because we looked too old. We had some clutch gigs in the works like playing the Florida dates for the Van’s Warped Tour, but I was just done. Reflecting on it all, maybe I left too soon, but leaving was what I needed to do.
The blues crept in as I sipped from the small glass of draft Bud Light. There were two other guys in the bar talking to each other about divorce. I thought of my past relationships, but beat back the sad thoughts by firing jokes over to the two guys. They laughed as I comically disparaged the holy sacrament of marriage. “Why do you want to get divorced? Do you want to have sex again?” I tossed to them already in full belly laugh from my other pointed witticisms. I thought about Nicole my girlfriend. I thought about the troubles she had been through with her ex. I thought about how far away her South Orange home was away from me in NYC, and her two kids, and how it will probably be too much for me to handle. But I bucked up and vowed I would try.
I peeled myself from the bar after just one beer. I didn’t want to pile up the Brick before the gig I was scheduled to play later in the evening. I drove over to Demens Landing and walked on the actual spot where the enormous stage was set up for Macbeth 15 years ago. I felt like a king of that stage and recalled that even though the play was bashed by a few critics, the area’s most prominent reviewer, John Fleming considered it the number one theatrical event of the year – even above some national theater tours. I smiled to myself. I had done a great thing that a lot of people saw.
With my spirits lifted I headed over to Paulo’s Pizza, a restaurant owned by the family of my niece Erica’s husband Mark. I wanted to see as many family members as I could on this trip. I convinced Erica to meet me at the Italian eatery along with her young daughter Talia. Mark fixed me a delicious Italian sub crafted in New York style. He used vinegar and oil and not mayo. Another niece of mine Brandi arrived as I chomped through the sandwich. I have a lot of good memories with my nieces. We used to write songs at my mom’s house together on the guitar or the piano, and we even made a recording studio out of a refrigerator box dubbed the “Be Cool Studio.” We talked about the good times we had in spite of some family hardships we overcame. I wish I had the chance to see them more as I love them dearly. Talia was hamming it up and even mimicked the way I hung my sunglasses off of the front of my shirt. She is a total cutie pie.
I finished off the entire sub and took the obligatory pictures of everybody on the Brick. I said my goodbyes, mounted up, and turned onto Central Avenue. I got choked up thinking about the years that have gone by and I have not seen all of my nieces and nephews as much as I should. I sacrificed so many things to move to New York, the hardest one being so distant from family. I am glad I made this trip. I want to do one just like it every year and make a point to visit the ones I love that are far away. I will do that.
I gunned the brick toward Tampa heading over the long stretch of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The bridge is well know for motorcycles racing along it’s span because there are few hiding places for cops. I stuck to the speed limit in a rare instance of restraint. I had a gig to play. I went right to The New World Brewery where the show would be. It is still one of my favorite places in Tampa. It has an inside area with an outdoor courtyard with a covered stage. They have a large selection of beers, foosball tables, a pinball machine, and really great food. The staff treats me like a legend, and I have performed there since the place opened in the 90’s. Dean the manager always takes care of me as does Joanne, a bartender that has worked there for many years. Steve the owner is always around and makes a point to talk to me even though I only drop in every three years or so. This venue is like a home away from home for me. Unpretentious and steady. I had a beer and chatted with Dean for a while. I felt like I never left Tampa even though I did some 13 years ago.
I got up to go to the bathroom and in the hallway was a picture of my old drummer Jeff Wood who passed away in 2007 from a brain tumor. The last time we played together was at a Joe Popp 10-year reunion show in 2005 here at New World as part of a benefit for Jobsite Theater, a company that had produced some of my rock musicals. I stared at the picture for a few seconds – Woody wearing a cuban guayabera shirt, our band’s signature style, with sticks blurred in full swing. He has been gone 5 years now, a blur of time as fast as the motion of his sticks. The irony of his death was that he was in superior shape. He claimed to do 2000 sit ups a day and he had the abs to prove it. He could play an hour set at full throttle and come back even harder for the encore. He was a driving force and inspired me to be a better musician. I missed the glory days when rock stardom seemed within reach.
I returned from the restroom, drained my beer, and told Dean I’d be back before show time. I drove over to my old friend Anthony Carbone’s house where would be staying. He wasn’t home but I just hung out with his dog Penny. Anthony bought the beautiful old huge house and painstakingly restored it to glory. I love staying there because the home is walking distance to The New World. Anthony and I knew each other in Tampa before I relocated to NYC in 2000, but we only became good friends after his many trips to NYC. We have a mutual friend Mark who served as a catalyst for our friendship. We all went to a Mets game and I made him laugh so hard after the game at the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden that a friendship was forged. In the years to follow, he would get a deal on a nice engagement ring for me, and he was present when I got engaged to my now divorced wife. He stood by as best man at my wedding. Like Martin, Anthony has seen me through some rough waters by just being a patient ear and a source of support when I needed those qualities most. He would pick me up at the airport, give me rides, loan me cars, and kick his son Cole out of his bed so I had a place to sleep. I owe him so much.
I rested up at Anthony’s house and prepared myself mentally for the show. The last time I played in Tampa 3 years ago, I was engaged to a woman but broke it off before we were married. After therapy and struggling with the long distance relationship, we called it quits in February of 2012. There was a lot of pain in my heart regarding that relationship. I had trouble letting it go. She had talked of moving to NYC and we would start a family, but we couldn’t keep it together. In many ways that relationship marked my last chance of having my own children. I was already late to the game, and after the break up there was little chance my nuclear family would ever become a reality. I thought about Nicole and her wonderful kids. They are incredible children, but they have a father who is still very much in the picture. I will always be Joe to them, maybe dad someday, but never a father.
Thinking about playing in Tampa again made me nervous but I recalled the words of my deceased drummer. Jeff once told me after my reluctance to play another concert at a venue where I previously had a terrible show, “You have to go back and face your demons.” His sage words chimed in my head as the show drew closer. I had to give great performance. I had to put the bad recollections of this town to sleep and move forward.
I arrived at the New World to a small crew of old friends. I would be doing two sets which I really didn’t like, but I had enough songs to easily cover the time. Gary Dizon loaned me a guitar for the night. Gary has always been a big supporter on mine and anytime I need something equipment-wise when I’m in Tampa, Gary is there to supply. For years he has done this and we don’t even talk that much. I took the stage and as expected there was not much of an audience. I played well and some people trickled into the bar, but I knew the second set would be when everybody would be showing up. And show up they did. So many great friends came out to see the concert and I felt honored. I performed songs old and new and my material was well received. As the night wore to a close, I saw there was a group of about 4 guys that were fans from back in 1995. They wanted to hear my old band’s closer titled “Drain.” These guys were all 15 or so back then and it was hilarious to see them all grown up with families and jobs. As I powered through the song they sang along and bumped around reliving the raucous times when we would play the State Theater in St. Pete. The moment was beautiful.
After the show I walked around to all of the tables and thanked everybody. Some of the faces I have not seen in over 15 years. Once again the sensation of time moving at light speed flashed through my brain. Those old days seemed like a second ago, and this moment now was so surreal. I pounded a few beers and sat with some of the gang from the Jobsite Theater crew. One by one the crowd drifted out, leaving just my old friends David and Spencer. David was one of the founding members of Jobsite and is the current artistic director for the company. He has kept the company afloat for over 15 years. Even though he is 10 years younger than me, I look up to him as a symbol of persistence. The guy does not quit. I met Spencer when I performed with him in a musical adaptation I did of Pericles that David directed. He is in his late twenties and one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. He is an actor, a singer, and a visual artist of the highest degree.
The three of us drank beers until New World kicked us out leaving us with an obvious Tampa late night drinking choice – The Hub. We headed over the the storied bar and I was surprised to see many of the old regulars sitting in the same seats that they occupied when I left 13 years ago. I continued to drink hard, numbing some of the lingering memories and regrets I had about Tampa. David and Spencer were good friends with the woman with whom I had broken the engagement, yet they respectfully never mentioned her name. We laughed and talked about Pericles which first produced in 4 years ago in 2009.
Pericles was such a great time for me but had a bitter ending. Jobsite restaged Pericles in New York at HERE for a few performances in 2010, but no producers saw any reason to pick it up. Several months after the New York run, I got a letter from the book writer’s lawyers. They wanted me to sign a collaboration agreement that included first refusal rights to music that I had written before the two of them came onboard the project. This caused a huge upheaval and even though I reluctantly signed the agreement, I vowed to never work for Jobsite again. I am sure this hurt David deeply at the time but tonight he wasn’t showing it. We were just goofing around like old pals, talking smack and making fun of each other. He swears he will lure back into the theater, but I doubt that will happen. My take away from theater after many years of trying to write music for the form is that it is not based in reality. Everybody on stage is playing a character. When I go to see a band I like, there is no acting , just real emotions connected to songs. Bands live with their songs for their entire careers where as actors rehearse a show for 5 weeks, perform it for 4 weeks, and move on to something else. I still perform songs I wrote 30 years ago. They are true and part of my fabric. Theater has none of that for me.
The lights came on at The Hub which meant last call. Damn near 4 a.m. I was leaving in the morning but really didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn so I could sleep in a bit. David made sure I got back safely to Anthony’s. He gave me a big bear hug as a way of saying,”No matter what happened in the past, we’re good.” His pickup truck pulled slowly away and I stumbled into the house. I faced a lot of old demons tonight. I’m not sure who won but I’m going to call it a draw. Some bad memories were welled up, but I played a great show and I made a lot of people smile and laugh. Hell, I guess I did win after all.