Charlie Russell (and the gun)

The rumor went around quickly: “Charlie’s dead.” It spread by word of mouth: guys he’d played with in various bands, an ex-girlfriend, a housemate. By this time Charles S. Russell had been gone from Rochester for about a decade. But in those years we kept hearing about his exploits: making a precarious living as a backgammon shark, running the soundboard for the Grandmothers of Invention (after Frank Zappa died), witnessing Goethe’s Faust performed by a cast of mentally retarded Germans.

What was true about Charlie? This much I’ll stand by. Of all the musicians I worked with, he was the one who I thought would make it into the Big Time. He was a great bass player. He had big bountiful hair and aplenty of optimistic ambition. He put out a 33 rpm single in 1987: “Daddy’s Gun (Handful of Nails”) on which he played all the instruments. He built, and lived for a while, an art-car named “Cinnabar Charm.” I’d coined the phrase and used it first as the title of a poem. He joined Health and Beauty (the best band I was ever part of) and contributed two pieces. The first was a totally un-ghetto rap (“My name is Charles S. Russell, I’m the King of Rock. I’ll be beating my thing around the clock.”) The second was his maniacal cover of “Daytripper.” He played Lennon’s riff perfectly, but as exactly-even eighth notes with no rests, like an autistic machine, while I bellowed at the baffled audience, “Me hungry! Me hungry!”

The last time I spoke with Charlie was in New York City. He’d told me to call next time I was in town. I got through, but he said he was three days into a game of poker with rich Israeli arms merchants and it would be very unwise to quit just then. “Maybe next time,” I said.

So when the rumor went around that Charlie was dead, I didn’t doubt. By that time, Charlie was living in the desert on an abandoned military base. No water, no power, no sewers for his trailer.

I called Sean, a drummer he’d worked with, to confirm the bad news. Though he wouldn’t tell me the cause of Charlie’s death, Sean said that Charlie really was dead. Soon, someone had the brilliant idea to call Charlie and make sure. He answered, having gotten no word of his untimely demise. It turned out it was his father’s obit (same name) that triggered our confusion and grief.

A few days later, Charlie posted a picture of himself holding a gun to his head. The caption: “No, this isn’t a cry for help. And no, I’m not dead.”

So a year or two later, when news of Charlie’s death began recirculating, I said to my informant: “Yeah, right. He’s dead again.”

This time, the story was true (or at least truer.) A friend had left him sitting at a table in his trailer. When the friend returned the next day, Charlie was still sitting there, at room temperature. No gun, no obvious signs of drug abuse, no funny suicide note.

The first band Charlie had been in was called Woody Dodge. I ran into Sean, the drummer, not long after Charlie’s second death and he gave me a fakey hippie Woody Dodge T-shirt. I doubt very much Charlie would’ve liked the tie-dyed design.

I hardly ever wear it. I suppose I’m saving it for the day when I hear Charlie has died again. Third time is the charm.