Tag Archives: Jeff Butler

Salvation Songs, part 2: Arms Can’t Stretch.

13 Dec


I’ve had two reliable sources of great mix tapes: Jeff Butler and Tommy Heffernan. Jeff had superior equipment, Tommy had a vast knowledge of musical esoterica. Jeff leaned towards guitar rock. Tommy favored new wave. Jeff gave me a greatest hits of Queen. Tommy juxtaposed The Talking Heads with The Smiths.

I still have the tapes they made me, all of them[1].

My cousin Keith has emerged as the mix tape source in my adult life. More about him later.

But once, just once, I was given a mixtape from a friend kind of out of nowhere, and on that tape was a song that changed my life.

Christian Bauer was and is a music maven. He loved, breathed, lived for music, and found a way to collapse conversations into his comfort zone. I met him through soccer, we were both into punk—we both liked Screeching Weasel, Blink 182 and Lagwagon—but he had much more adventurous[2] tastes. He had a wide palate, dipping into all manner of musical subcultures.

We went to different high schools, and I was a year older but we were friends. He was smart and into ideas. I was interested in the world and read a lot. I remember he asked me once, when he was 17, how someone could pray all the time, constantly. “What would it look like?” (He was referring to Frannie and Zooey.) I said I didn’t know. He pondered. My attention drifted.

It’s hard to know how others view you, but I think he saw me as decent and generous with my emotional space.

Anyway, he made me a tape. I still have it. It’s titled “Something to fall back on.” He drew a picture of a smiling guy on the front. Some of the music was what we at the time called Emo Screamo, which has no real contemporary equivalent. Some of it was indie rock. Some of it was punk. And then, the first song on the second side, was a track by Hot Water Music: “Arms Can’t Stretch.”


I used to go to punk shows at the Nite Owl, a shitty little rundown bar at the edge of a busted out shopping mall. Along with Sluggo’s—and later a tiny place called Section Eight—it was Pensacola’s only punk rock venue. (The mall has since converted into a Lowe’s. Or might be boarded up by now.) The Nite Owl had a stage, a reliable sound system, some pool tables and ratty gutter punk furniture. It drew huge all-ages shows. I saw Good Riddance, Face to Face, and Less than Jake there, among dozens of others. I loved it.

One of the perennial favorites was a band named Avail. They were amazing live, just stunning. They were a forerunner to the hardcore sound—a type of music, no longer around, that saw its heyday with Earth Crisis and The Henry Rollins Band and Hatebreed and, to a lesser extent, Pantera, and then dismantled into emo and death metal. I bought their cds. The music was okay but the magic wasn’t there. Avail’s magic was on the stage. I saw them a number of times.

Opening for Avail, when I was 19, was the band Hot Water Music.


They’re a great band. The music is at times simple and comforting, but they have two singers and use them in tandem to great emotional effect. They also have a dynamite live show, but I was distracted and didn’t pay close attention.

I was in a difficult, unhappy period. I had a crushing avalanche of introspection. I essentially switched from an extroverted happy guy into a brooding, self-directed dude[3]. It felt like a malignant presence had invaded my thoughts. Placed into the new context of college, in a new city, I was unsure of who I was. I didn’t feel like I belonged with the soccer players on the team, and I didn’t have outlets to make new friends. I drank too much. I lost weight. I listened to whiny punk and power pop. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t enjoy my own company. I didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. There’s more[4]. My buddy Jeff was in Georgetown, living a life I wanted. Robert and Chris stayed in Pensacola. I felt alone and isolated and lonely. It sounds silly and quaint at this telescoped distance, but at the time I missed my friends, and I missed them terribly. I missed my family too, although I wouldn’t have admitted the sickly ache to anyone, including myself.

A second level of dislocation. I didn’t like Montgomery. More provincial than Pensacola, which seemed impossible. No live music. No punk anywhere. Thick-accented people who belonged to a Deep South culture I had somehow averted.

I was all over the place politically, a hybrid of libertarianism and old-school republicanism, as well as a mish mash of religion. I suffered from a collision of Southern Baptist, old school religion and burgeoning Gnostic notions trickling down to me through the eons via literature. The mystery religions of the ancient world were alive, and I was electrified by their contact[5].

I felt alone, alone, alone, alien in my own body, disconnected from my own thoughts and the miserable surroundings. But I had that tape. Something to fall back on.


Yes, back to Christian’s mix tape. The first song on the second side. A song by the band I had seen back at the Nite Owl.

“Arms Can’t Stretch” is a love song, but I interpreted it at the time as a paean to life itself. It’s a soaring, rapturous song. It sounds of its time, there’s a touch of the 1990s to it, but it also sounds cosmic and timeless. There’s a spiritual strand in the lyrics.

I listened to this song constantly. Play, rewind, play, rewind. Along with “Modern Love” by David Bowie and, strangely, “Whipping Boy” by Lagwagon, I had a precise soundtrack of three songs.

One night I drove up to Athens to visit my cousin, Keith, at the University of Georgia.

We bopped around the campus, then around downtown, talking, talking, talking. We ate pizza. We walked. It was a calm night. We saw one of Keith’s friends witnessing to undergraduates. We passed the bars and the buskers. We made our way back to his dorm around 2 in the morning. He had a corner room. We were wiped out. I was happy, emptied out of negative feelings and at peace in a way that only the best of friends and the closest of companions can bring.

“I’ve got a song for you to hear,” he said.

And he put this on.


[1] Although many of Tommy’s tapes are now playing through the speakers of my brother-in-law’s car.

[2] and at times more sophisticated.

[3] I’ve always been an uncomfortable mixture of both.

[4] But I won’t go into it; haven’t you learned by now that writers lie by omission?

[5] There’s a story here, and it’s a good one, but I’m sticking to the topic as much as possible.

VHS, not Super-8, part 2: From Gettysburg to Vietnam

27 Jun

Since I was a child, I’ve had movies on the brain. My first efforts at home moviemaking have been detailed; my later successes have not.

In tenth grade, I took a cinema class. Ms. Moore was the teacher. She was serious, a bit dour, cynical and a touch subversive. We watched some good movies, including Gaslight and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (I also developed a crush on a certain brunette from the upper grades.) Halfway through the semester, we put ourselves into groups. I was in a group with Greg P. and Michael T. We had to adapt an existing work of literature into a movie. Greg and Mike—two funny guys, really—picked the Gettysburg Address over my objections. I was bewildered as to what type of movie we would make; they thought it would be hilarious.

I played Lincoln. We recruited all of our friends, shot on location in the woods behind Peyton Moseley’s house. The first half is an unknown assassination attempt on the president. Lincoln and his entourage are attacked while he takes a stroll in the woods. Why he would do this during a war isn’t explained. Robert played one of the guards, takes a shotgun blast to the chest. He held a glob of ketchup in his hand and smashed it into his shirt right in front of the camera. There was even some bloody spray. Others were shot, stabbed, had their necks broken. (And Peyton, in a moment of absolute absurdity, enacted a wrestling move and broke my nose on camera. True story.) Two people survived the vicious gunfight: President Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

The author, circa 1993, with some baby.

The second half is the Gettysburg Address, and then the assassination of Lincoln. I gave the address by Peyton’s pool. Peyton wore some of his mom’s clothes and went as Mary Todd. He scratched himself, yawned, sneezed and so on during the speech. The camera caught everything. It was classic.

The whole epic lasted all of six minutes.

The movie was aces. Only, it was a minute short. So Mike T. had the idea of adding post-movie interviews of people who had just seen the movie. It was a great idea, really funny, but Alec Finlay got us a B on the project because he mock-punched Mike.

The teacher said it was gratuitous violence. (I told you she was serious.)

After this, we all stopped making movies for a while. We had drinking, parties, sports, studies, girls, that goddamned computer class—high school stuff through and through.

A year later, Robert was in the same cinema class. His group—I think he was with Matt Lemon and Ward Haliday—decided to do some story set in Vietnam. We dressed to the nines; everyone had army fatigues and realistic firearms. We shot the movie twice. The first print was lost. The story was an ambush. The characters were pulled from the Vietnam War movies we’d seen: Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Every take, Robert would repeat, “God, it’s hotter than a whore in church,” and we’d all crack up and have to reshoot.

We shot the second in the shallow creek bed at the end of Spanish Trail. We had fireworks—illegal in Florida, so we had to drive to the Alabama border for them—for the gunfight. There wasn’t much of a story. I died, Robert died, everyone died. The drifting smoke hung in the wind. It was almost artful. Like a Herzog or Tarkovsky film. The police were called, but the cop was friendly, cracked a few jokes, and told us to high tail it off private property, which we did, as soon as we got the last shot.

At one point, yielding two machine guns, Robert ran right up to the camera and yelled, “Die you filthy fucking gooks!” His group decided to leave this in. They won their class competition, and the movie was shown, unedited, throughout the close-circuit televisions in the school. We winced. The powers that be were pissed, we were at a Catholic school, after all, but art won out and nothing came of it.

The author, circa 2011; the face of raw genius.

We made one more movie and a few mock previews—more about these in a future post—but the VHS era was over. Life got in the way.

Jeff grew up first, became a Navy SEAL, got married, had children and then entered the State Department. Robert let go of his dream of working in special effects and instead became a telephone/internet technician; he’s happy. I never let go of my dreams of being a writer—I cling to them with the feral ferocity of adolescence—but the dream of making movies has inevitably faded. I know it’ll never happen. We were on the wrong coast. We were too easily distracted. We didn’t have good enough equipment. We didn’t have vision. Jeff got his first girlfriend, and that was that.

Jeff’s parents have most of the movies; the others are lost forever, alive only in our memories.

VHS, not Super-8, part 1: Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Doom

20 Jun

(three failed filmmakers and a nun.)

I saw Super-8 on Saturday. The movie follows a group of kids trying to make a movie with a super-8 camera. In the process, they witness a train wreck where something otherworldly escapes. It was tolerable, pleasant and benign despite (or because of) its excessive retro gazing, neoliberal politics and nerdcore sensibility. As a film, it’s just okay. But as an exercise in nostalgia, it’s superb.

When I was in high school, I made movies, too, with my friends Jeff and Robert. This was in the early ’90s; VHS had eclipsed super-8 and that was fine. Jeff owned the camera, so we filmed at his house and he usually handled the cinematography. Robert played the hero or villain or both. I filled in the other roles. We didn’t have scripts. We all came up with ideas. With a cast of 2 and ½ we were limited. We were also lazy. We had rudimentary costumes. We didn’t attempt to build or modify sets. A swimming pool in a gladiator movie? No problem. The only music we used was Les Miserables.

Jeff was rational, realistic and often reluctant to participate. Robert was madness personified, willing to do anything. I was game so long as we didn’t do anything immoral and/or illegal. (Besides being raised Southern Baptist, I also had the moral privilege of attending a Catholic high school; see above photo.) In other words: Jeff was the ego, Robert the id and I was the superego. While Jeff and I often switched roles, Robert was always (and remains) the wild-eyed id.

Jeff edited on the camera. He would rewind the VHS tape and then try again. It was an exhausting way to make a movie. We would spend hours on a 2-minute movie, and many of the screw-ups and false starts would end up in the final cut.

Our first movie was Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Death. Robert played a missionary/hero/assassin looking for the heart of a doomed castle, which looked suspiciously like Jeff’s bedroom, hallways, den and living room. I played cloned cyborg replicants. There was no plot. I don’t remember any speaking lines, either. The whole point was for Robert to kill versions of me in as many ways as possible, on his way to an epic finish. Basically Gymkata, plus robots but minus the karate. I was beheaded, stabbed, broken into pieces. My eyes were gouged. In one scene I wore a helmet. At some point my testicles were punted out of my mouth. Jeff disallowed any fake blood, so we had to mime each and every atrocity.

Here are some of the other titles from our freshman year:

Party of Death

Cyborg Cowboy

Time Travel Movie

Conan the Christian (co-starring Chris Creary)

Die, Vamp (with Chris Butler)

There were others, but you get the idea. Unlike the young heroes of Super-8, we had no aliens, only serial killers and androids (and sometimes android serial killers). Party of Death is a Halloween rip-off. Time Travel Movie (Jeff disliked this too much to give it a name) is a one-scene Back to the Future without the jokes. But, spoken with all humility, Cyborg Cowboy is a masterpiece. I played a cowboy taken to the future by an evil scientist, experimented on (the laboratory was Jeff’s parents’ garage) and then abandoned to a cruel dystopia that bore an uncanny resemblance to Pensacola, FL circa 1991. We were going to make it a series, but then Jeff started dating girls and Robert and I fell headlong into after-school horror movie Toaster Strudel marathons.

Two years later, we returned to moviemaking with a bang. We decided, for a class, to adapt The Gettysburg Address. It would be a sensational retelling of the untold assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. Read about the dramatic behind the scenes stories of this lost cinematic masterpiece in “VHS, not Super-8, part 2.”