My favorite story to tell lately occurs after a music rehearsal for Drawn-Out Storytelling, on whatever wrong train I ended up choosing to get to the couch in Brooklyn on which I stayed. I sit with my Bouzouki in my lap, feeling generally small the way any North Carolinian might on a New York subway, squinting at the map across from me. A few stops in to the ride sees the ambling onstage of a very tall man with very small hands and a face apparently sculpted from rough pink concrete plus a patchy goatee that could’ve been glued on by a toddler eager to do something else. He has one of those thin, pre-ziploc sandwich baggies twisted around itself to seal in these bright red…squishy strawberries? Eyeballs? Cherry tomatoes? It’s hard to tell. I offer the salutory head-bob/smile and he just holds my gaze as though to make me immediately regretful of doing so, and asks “are you in a band?” and I say whatever I say when folks ask me that and he immediately jumps in with “oh my god I’m recording an album and you’re going to play on it it’s my first effort outside spiritual/yogacentric music but it’s produced by Thaniel Clement you know Thaniel Clement*.” The last part sounds a bit like a question, but even if it isn’t, I don’t feel like shaking my head “no” is entirely inappropriate. “Thaniel Clement?! He’s only the third-best fucking Piano-Guitarist in Manhattan. Here -“ and he starts scratching what I suppose to be this fellow’s number on my hand with a bic pen.
( I’m not altogether apprehensive throughout this – I know what it is to be weird and to want my delusions legitimized. Plus, for all I know, this fellow with the pretentious name might be a musician worth knowing, whatever the hell a “Piano-Guitarist” actually is.)
At this point I start to attempt to agree and inquire where I might hear his stuff. “On my Myspace,” he intones, the of course implied underneath. I ask how to find it, and he regards me with a sudden…sympathy?
“You don’t know who I am.”
I agree – I don’t.
Magnanimously: “I’m Tamerlane Phillips.”
I still don’t know who he is, but I act like I do. “This,” he tells me, “is going to be the biggest thing I’ve done since the album me and Julian Lennon did together. You’ll be playing on the track The Waters of Life.” I don’t get out the “what” in “what does it sound like” before he stands up and starts headbanging and whisper-yelling the lyrics at me. He’s jerked out of his song by the train and looks up with horror – “is this the A?” I shake my head again and he darts off the train. I get off at the next stop, altogether lost.
After combing my long way back to my buddy’s couch I look him up. Tamerlane “Tam” Phillips. Brother to Bijou Phillips, son of musician John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. It was him, alright, same craggy face, same single-minded desperation. He did, in the loosest sense, “do an album” with Julian Lennon – that is, he’s credited as singing background vocals on a track that didn’t sound like it had background vocals. It looks like, for most of his life until recently, he languished in the debauched and aimlessly rich community of children-of-rockstars, dabbling with too much coke and heroin. There are youtube videos of him talking about how his troubled, famous family “amounts to a bowl of dog urine” compared to this famous historical guru and yogi – a certain Nityananda of Ganeshpuri(“what no one talks about is how fucking sexually magnetic this guy was”). There’s a myspace page with one song of his – what resembles the piano part to John Lennon’s “Imagine” on repeat while he himself repeats “sweet, sweet, Nityananda.”** I phoned Thaniel Clement and left a message – never heard back.
I’m not even sure if I like this story, but I’m maybe attached to it because this poor maniac can be nobody but his miserable, crazy self, and that breaks my heart. There’s a phrase from Camus: “The incalculable tumble before the image of what we are.” I guess that’s more or less what I experienced then. On the same token – until something outside of us says we’re good, I maintain that any of us with a shred of artistic ambition are Tamerlane Phillips before we’re anyone else. I suppose it was just terrifying to see him, or that, personified.
*totally not his name, but not far from it. A common white boy name with a letter or two altered. Like Fonathan. Or Dacob. Or Chaxwell.