How a therapeutic teddy bear, a brush with death, and a husband and wife Psychic-tag team forever changed my world view
A year after my dad died and a year before our band, Sussman Lawrence left for New York, I got a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, subversive by nature, had chosen to name her bear after the heretical Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, from the 1700’s.
Spinoza was seen as harmful and at odds with the views of the Jewish establishment of the times and he was put into a religious ban called a charem, by the Dutch Jewish community that he lived and worked in. Aside from the fact that he was shunned and reviled for his modernist views no one had much bad to say about him as person, aside from the fact that “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”
Ruth Grosh was New Age before anyone had heard the term. The last time she and I spoke, I learned she was living with a band of native tribes people in British Columbia and had changed her name to Rachel Owa. I don’t know this for fact, but I can imagine Rachel always being the first one in the sweatlodge, and the first one to receive visions of flying in some light-filled astral realm.
Back when she was still Ruth, she’d commissioned me to write ten songs, which would go inside a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the fur of the bear’s stomach. By today’s standards the technology seems crude, but at the time, and with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear and the music were issuing directly from the bear himself. As for the voice, it was decided after some deliberation that not only should I write and sing the songs, but that I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear.
Each of the eleven cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just over a year the bear became a huge success, not as some plebeian, retail teddy bear; but as something greater. My twenty-two year-old voice was used to calm the pain of rape victims, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, grief stricken parents, and children on cancer wards all across the country. Aside from all the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band used to set sail for New York City in the spring of 1985; five band members in a Buick Regal station wagon, two roadies in a Dodge cube van heading out of Saint Louis Park for the East Coast.
When we finally reached New Jersey we weren’t surprised to find that no one was particularly interested in renting a house to a rock and roll band. As always, necessity insisted I be both resourceful and deceitful. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a hapless real estate agent named Carol Estes that we’d found advertised in the Bergen County Gazette. I explained to Carol that we were five medical students, enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University and in need of a quiet place to live and to study.
As the rest of the guys waited outside in the Buick, I showed up at her office the following morning in a suit and tie I’d purchased at a thrift shop and carrying a responsible looking, albeit none too new, brief case. I boned up on some medical terms as well, in case Carol needed proof of our actually being medical students. But there had been no need, we had the cash and I seemed honest enough; honest enough to let her know that a few of us were also part time musicians and that there might be some music playing — quietly of course — from time to time, to ease the strain of our studies.
Not more than a week later we signed the lease papers and our cube van, which had been newly (and completely) christened with graffiti from our debut gig at CBGB’s the previous night, pulled into the driveway of 133 Busteed Manor in Midland Park, New Jersey and unloaded four beer stained amplifiers, seven guitars, a drum set in large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire PA and lighting set up. Trying to be as discreet as possible lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we lugged the gear straight into the garage, up a short flight of stairs, and into the living room. Aside from some bad scrapes on the hardwood floor and a hole or two in the walls on our way up the stairs, we were quick and efficient. Completely set up by late afternoon, we began rehearsing straight away, our New Wave anthems blaring into the New Jersey night.
About a month after settling into the squalor of our band house collective, Ruth reached me by phone. I took the phone as far out of the kitchen as the pig-tail cord would allow just so I could hear Ruth over the din of our loud and horrible suppers of turkey ham and Progresso chicken noodle soup. She revealed to me that some psychic friends of hers had explained that I had only a few months left on the planet.
“What” I asked, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing it seemed, but her nonchalance didn’t make me feel any less troubled. “They want to know if you’d like to come in for a consultation.” I was flying back to Minneapolis later that week anyway and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving was about.
On the morning of my appointment with the psychics, my mother was flitting around the kitchen. She simply couldn’t stop chattering. She had a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony. It was her first date since my Dad died almost two years ago.
“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.” “Yeah, it looks great,” I said. To be perfectly honest I was uncomfortable in the extreme, watching my mother prance around the house like a schoolgirl, primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died and given all that she’d been through it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little; after all it was just a lunch. But the more I saw this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked outside. It was Ruth. She and I drove together to Brooklyn Center as new age flutes played on her cassette deck. We arrived after a twenty-minute drive up highway 18, and parked the car near a long row of newly built town houses.
A man and a woman in their early forties greeted us at the front door. They appeared to be some kind of husband and wife psychic tag-team, and they jumped in headlong by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I know. “We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” they said. I figured it was some method of showing off their psychic abilities.
“Just the first names are enough.”
My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable ability, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. I figured I’d start with him. “Ok, Jeff,” I said. The two psychics were seated in old-fashioned armchairs facing one another. Suddenly, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I knew each of them because Jeff had given them names. When his thumbs spasmodically bent downward, he called it “Southerner.” When they flexed upwards in a hand-waving motion, he called it, “Reckless Greeter.” Just then the corners of the psychic’s mouths were forming compressed half smiles, their eyebrows were raising and lowering and their eyes were blinking, open — shut — open — shut, mimicking Jeff perfectly.
“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman psychic shouted.
Her husband, whose hands began to flawlessly copy Jeff’s Reckless Greeter, added,
“Yes, the music. Can you feel it just pouring out of him?”
I was thinking this had to be some kind of trick. It was astonishing, yes, but I wasn’t convinced.
Next, I said “Beverly,” my mother’s name, and they both instantly giggled. It’s annoying to see adults giggle at any time but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, well, it’s triply so.
“She’s doing something she feels guilty about.” The woman offered.
“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of, but she’s also very excited.”
Almost in unison, they said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today.”
At that point these two freaks had my undivided attention. The room was silent for almost a full minute. I didn’t dare speak. They had actually scared the shit out of me. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come to talk about.
“Is it your wish to leave the planet,” the woman asked. I paused, thinking it over for longer than you might think any normal person might. “No,” I told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.” This seemed to relieve them and the man said,
“The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence and by working as single-mindedly as you have been, to get a record deal with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity, you’ve been in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”
His wife took over.
“What you need to do is to uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and that you love reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love rather than music you think will sell.” Almost without thinking I said, “There’s this song that I wrote for my dad on Father’s Day that I’ve never really played for anyone. It’s something I wrote with the sole intention of expressing my feelings for him before he died.” “Why not put that out as your next record,” said the man.
It was such a simple idea and it moved me somehow from where I’d been, where I’d been locked up, to another place entirely.
Somehow, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the pain of my father’s dying, that it was simply time now to grit my teeth and persevere. It’d been two years for God’s sake. But I supposed the process of mending was never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and the rawness of his death, I supposed I needed to face it again and again. That day, at that moment, I really didn’t want to die.
In some ways my father’s passing, painful as it was, provided me with a bridge to traverse. It allowed me to transcend so many of the petty concerns I might have gotten wrapped up in otherwise. While he was sick and suffering in the last five years of his life, I was in a far different mental place than my friends. I’m not saying it made me wise or anything like that, it’s just that great tragedy can, for the few willing to accept its lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s profane.
While my dad was enduring his final sojourn into the world of stage-four lymphoma I was working very hard to get famous. I felt I needed to do something great before he died, something he would be proud of — whatever the hell that might have meant.
As I look back on all this, I don’t believe anything is missing. I know that my father is with me in whatever way it is that a spirit hovers with those beloved and left behind. I also know that he was proud of me then, and that he is proud of me still.