Dateline: Saugerties, NY.
Just yesterday in the late afternoon, I finished washing garden dirt from my fingers after planting this summer’s new crop: lemon thyme, basil, purple basil, Thai basil, tarragon, rosemary, tomatillos, Japanese eggplant, and thirty plants worth of four varieties of tomatoes. The process has taken several days, beset as I was by rain. And then, last night, we were visited by an apocalyptic hailstorm, succeeded by more rain and high winds. The carnage from the hail left a handful of the tomato plants, one purple basil bush, and a tomatillo stalk lying broken, wilted, and dead in the garden mud.
I studied the corpses this morning and I have to admit that some part of me was grateful. Not grateful that the damage might have been more catastrophic to our 5’ x 18’ patch of agriculture (although I was relieved about that), nor that the economic toll was only about $4 worth of plants (and I was gratified by that, too). I was grateful for this: the slain tomatoes needed replacing and this meant I could head over to Woodstock and grab new saplings at Sunfrost, a locally sourced, organic vegetable store managed by Gary Miller, aka Dr. Know, aka guitarist for the Bad Brains, the best live band I’ve ever seen and one of the greatest outfits of all time.
(Bad Brains in the early 80s.
Dr. Know is the one up front, stroking his beard.)
Pretty much any description of the Bad Brains involves a density of superlatives: the most ferocious/wild/spirited/tight/kinetic. Anyone aware of them (and if you’ve ever paid attention to underground music, you know who the Bad Brains are) usually couches the terms of the discussion in tones of awe and reverence. Ask the Beastie Boys. Ask Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye. Ask Ric Ocasek. Go ahead and ask Madonna—she signed them to her Maverick record label in 1995, though that worked out somewhat poorly. I first heard them as a teen, hormonally-blasted, awkward beyond measure in my raw-boned, spindle-shanked body, just dimly becoming aware that there was a whole other world hidden within the world. The music was insane and, to a lily-white New Hampshire kid, the fact that they were four Rastafarians was the corker to an already mind-rending package. All that vigor and velocity, with the Armageddon displosians of the Rasta faith. A couple decades later, I still listen regularly and the songs still make detonations inside my skull.
For grainy video proof, check out this version of Banned In DC from 1982 and a 1987 version of I.
This saga really began two of summers ago, at about 6:00 in the evening, where I warmed a seat at the bar of New World Home Cooking , a Saugerties restaurant owned by chef Ric Orlando. I had just introduced myself to Orlando and we’d sat talking about cooking and kitchens for a few minutes. The restaurant door opened and from out of the gloaming came a man. The man sat down to my left, a slightly older, gentle-appearing guy, with his hair tucked into a brown knit Rasta-styled hat. He placed an order. Orlando called out a “hello” to him and the two bantered for a moment. The guy looked familiar. Really, really familiar. It took a second to dawn on me.
After finishing his drink, he slid off his stool and left the building.
“Let me ask you something,” I said to Orlando. “That guy...is he a musician?”
“Yeah, he is. He’s the guitarist for—“
I cut him off. I was getting excited. The amplitude of my voice ratcheted up. “Is he the guitarist for the Bad Brains?”
“Yeah. He’s a Bad Brain.” I sat down on the stool just moments ago vacated by Dr. Know. I hoped there might be some metaphysical transference of energies. I waited. I waited intensely. Seconds later, I felt no different. So I meditated on how I had just encountered someone who’d brought me so many hours of pleasure and adrenaline. Ric Orlando continued. “He also manages Sunfrost up on 212 outside of Woodstock. Have you ever been there?”
“Once, but, man, I am going back tomorrow.” When I got home, I told Nelly the tale and we resolved to drive the ten miles to Sunfrost.
We arrived in the early afternoon to find Dr. Know at the edge of the Sunfrost parking lot with a hose in hand, addressing himself to steel shelves filled with herbs, vegetable seedlings, and flowers. For a second, I experienced a major disjunct at seeing this man—capable of wrenching utter thunder and blazing motion from the inner workings of his guitar—at home among all this newly sprouted vegetation. But then again, this was Woodstock, and it started making an absolute sense.
“Are you going to say anything to him?” Nelly asked. We were both kind of gawking at Dr. Know in wonderment. When she was 14, dating a much older ne’er-do-well music producer, Nelly had actually met the Bad Brains in New York City and had hung out with them in a recording studio. Their bassist, Darryl Jenifer, had tried to talk her into breaking the relationship off for her own good. Nelly seemed no less impressed watching Dr. Know water his plants than I was.
“How can I not?” I said. We got out of the car and I approached. “Excuse me,” I called out. He stopped and turned to face me. “Are you, by any chance, Gary Miller?”
Dr. Know looked startled. Then he looked hostile. Then he looked like he wished he was anywhere else. He dropped the hose, said, “Yes, I’m Gary Miller,” and went straight into the store. I felt awkward. Then I felt bad.
Nelly and I perused the herbs, selected rosemary and thyme plants, and went inside to look at the vegetables. While Nelly shopped, I stood in front of a pile of cabbages, right in the stream of the air conditioner. Dr. Know came out of a door across the room and moved toward me, looking down at a clipboard. I said one more time, “Excuse me” and he glanced up and got that flashing series of looks on his face again.
“I’m sorry I interrupted you before,” I said. “I didn’t mean to intrude, I just wanted to say that you guys were the most amazing live band I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh,” he said. His whole stance relaxed. The hand holding his clipboard dropped down to his waist. “Oh. Man, the way you came at me, saying my name like that, I thought you were FBI or something.”
“No, just a fan. My name’s Jonathan.” We shook hands. After a few minutes, he took leave and Nelly and I took off. The next trip I made that summer, he wasn’t there. Last summer, we missed him on each of the several trips we made to buy herbs to grow in what was then our miniscule garden.
And then this year we went all out, excavating a much larger plane of land behind the garage for growing purposes. Which is how I found myself standing next to Dr. Know a few days ago as he helped me find the Thai basil, tomatillos, etc. from among his many outdoor shelves of plants. He didn’t remember me at all, but I didn’t care.
“No,” he was saying, “We don’t have any epazote this year. Sorry. No one bought it last year so we didn’t grow any this year. No, I’m sorry, we don’t have savory, either. The Japanese eggplants are right over here—” he moved to a shelf a few feet over and picked up a couple flats—“And you said you wanted Thai basil? It’s still pretty young so I’ll run to the greenhouse to get some for you.”
“Thank you very much. I appreciate it.”
“Any time, man.” He darted off.
And now I need to go back to Woodstock again, because of the rain and hail—not quite the fire and brimstone of Rasta theology, but no less a devastation to those poor few plants in the garden—and buy more herbs from Dr. Know. I guess I’m still after that metaphysical transference of energies.