Nobody's Business No. 5

Between the Cracks

 "Smokin'" Joe Copeland surveys the Black Dirt region of Orange County, NY.

"Smokin'" Joe Copeland surveys the Black Dirt region of Orange County, NY.

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious on steroids, let me begin by acknowledging that we all are living through an era of some measure of uncertainty and existential stress, and that it's hard to get a word in edgewise when trying to focus on one specific problem or another. That said, there is one particular problem upon which I, a longtime reprobate who has dedicated the late innings of his life to helping people as opposed to using them, am currently focused. I hope to invite others to focus with me on this problem, if only for a few moments of their tumultuous, very busy and balkanized lives.

"Smokin'"Joe Copeland is nothing less than an unsung American genius. I lucked into his presence in 1990 when, at the very beginning of a Walter Mitty-esque run as a computer systems analyst-turned-middle-aged rock star, I auditioned for a job as the keyboard player in a nascent NYC funk band being formed by Milo "Milo Z" Zwerling, the former drummer of a legendary downtown band known as "Joey Miserable and the Worms," aka "The Worms." The audition was held in the large, airy, rent-free apartment Milo had been ceded by his mother, a notorious free spirit and charter member of the Beat Generation named Harriet Zwerling. Harriet had started a one-woman rent strike in the 1960s, which is apparently still in effect in 2018, and is about to launch Milo into the top 1%, at least for a few minutes, as developers are falling all over each other to tear the place down and build another faceless high-rise. The apartment, on lower Second Avenue, had a balcony overlooking the back of CBGB. I lived there for a spell, but that's another story. Despite the fact that I was decades older than everyone present, my keyboard chops were considered sufficient, and the band Milo Z was born.

It was obvious from the beginning that Joe was a jewel, and the secret weapon upon which Milo would build his sound. Joe was a fabulous bass player, who could effortlessly handle the slapping and popping style then in vogue, as well as anything else that was thrown at him. Jazz, reggae, heavy metal, country, pop, rock, blues, soul, funk, whatever. He was also one of the best soul singers in New York or anywhere else, and could harmonize instinctively, croon, howl, rap colorfully  or scream bloody murder. He gave musical grace and a wide palette of colors to what could have been a very limited undertaking, at the same time giving all the credibility Milo or anyone else (including me) would need when unselfconsciously appropriating black culture.

The original Milo Z band lasted from 1990 to 1996. Besides being the keyboard player, I was a co-songwriter and fell into being the business guy in the band. Starting small at colorful dives like Nightingale and the "Mondos," Cane and Perso, the band created a party-like, dance-heavy atmosphere. We relatively quickly built a following of thousands, and became hard to miss. We became as huge as a homegrown unsigned band can get in NYC, getting in excess of $4,000 a show at Tramps, Wetlands, etc. Our eventual manager, who saw us first at a show at Mondo Perso, was David Sonnenberg, who also managed the Spin Doctors, Joan Osborne, Fugees, Black Eyed Peas, Meat Loaf, etc., and produced "When We Were Kings," the Oscar-winning documentary about Mohammad Ali. Although the band was usually six to ten strong onstage, there were only four of us who got signed to Mercury/Polygram by Ed Eckstyne, Mercury's president: Milo, Joe, me and Masa Shimizu, the guitarist. We made an album, "Basic Need to Howl," made a video, did some TV, and went on the road, flush with advance money. When Eckstyne got fired by the suits at Polygram in 1995 while we were deep in the south on a tour with the Neville Brothers and Al Green, our album lost the support of the label, and died on the vine. We were Sonnenberg's only failure.

Milo was, and according to Joe still is, a bandleader in the old Buddy Rich mode, with a sliding scale of whom he respects, appreciates, and pays. Out of a 4 grand payday Milo would get 2,000, I'd get 1,000, Joe and Masa would get 250 each and the rest of the band, sometimes 5 or more people including whatever drummer he'd be abusing, would have to split the remaining 500, after expenses. On the road the low-totem-pole people made even less. At one point I led a mutiny to force more equitable distribution. Milo refused, and the whole band quit. Joe eventually went back with Milo, and has been an indentured servant ever since, attempting with little success to build a life for himself in between getting underpaid for gigs and short tours.

 

When I left the band, Joe was still living in what amounted to bohemian splendor, comfortably ensconced in a Murray Hill apartment with his girlfriend, wearing velvet jackets and lounging on art deco furniture. Milo gigs have fallen off considerably over time, and Joe's been left hanging. After the breakup with his girlfriend he lived in the Bronx with a friend for a few years until that friend passed away. He then moved into a room in a Pentecostalist church for a few months, doing odd jobs and playing and singing in the gospel choir for room and board. During these years Milo would call him for gigs traveling to Greece or on a cruise ship or at a ski area, or a wedding or somewhere in the city. There were no more record deals. The church building was condemned and closed its doors about 9 months ago, and Joe was staying on his now-married-with-two-kids ex-girlfriend's couch in Westchester when I contacted her on Facebook, asking if she knew where he was because I couldn't find him. "He's right here on my couch," was the answer. I pulled out a bunch of stops trying to find him a place to stay, and an old friend of mine came through with a temporary solution, in a house he rents in the Warwick countryside. My friend works out of there half the month, and was letting Joe stay there rent-free. I drove Joe around, bought him food, etc. I got him some sneakers. I stored all of his basses and other extraneous possessions in my basement, and set about trying to find him a more permanent situation closer to me so I could help him get around and get his life back together. I got him on a number of waiting lists for subsidized housing.

One important note: Joe has had a lifelong struggle with alcoholism.His condition manifests in episodic bouts of heavy drinking, during which he may disappear for a while, occasionally landing in a temporary lockup. In the past, Milo would locate him, bail him out and endeavor to dry him out until he could get him back onstage. He would fine him for his behavior if he caught him drinking or if Joe missed a gig. Until now, Joe has gotten little if any real help with his addiction. My friend, whom I had advised of this reality, didn’t take long to realize that the situation would be untenable in the long term. He subsequently needed the space for a family member, and I went down and got Joe. After a disappointing runaround with the local shelter "system," which is dangerous, broken, and a portal into permanent degradation, my wife and I made a temporary space for him in the basement, which has a bed, a shower, a toilet and a small refrigerator. There is no public transportation within miles, and I took him everywhere. I tried every day to find him someplace permanent, as well as to get him the help he needed to turn his life around. I removed all traces of alcohol from our home.

Joe was until recently receiving public assistance out of the Bronx. I went with him to Dutchess County Social Services and a temporary assistance case was opened. In June, I was able to get him into the best rehabilitation facility in the Hudson Valley. He was there 90 days, and recently was transferred to a halfway house in Poughkeepsie. He has an AA sponsor and a wonderful caseworker, and she and I are in constant contact. Joe came to Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and looked great. He’s in “Phase 2” of his program, which means he is largely restricted to the halfway house or to heavily chaperoned meetings and outside activities. My cousin and I, along with my wife, her business partner and another intelligent, caring woman in our community, are forming a nonprofit organization (called Creative Resources Foundation) to help Joe and other lost artists regain their lives. Through the regional alcohol rehab organization, he will eventually be set up someplace comfortable, relatively safe and surrounded by services, and will be available to get into playing situations up here. My dream is that he will eventually be starting a band with me, which has been a long time coming. Regardless, he's still got it, and would be an asset in anyone's band. Literally. Back in June, he and I attended a lovely old-timey Sunday morning swing jazz jam in Beacon and he had the other participants and the lucky coffee swillers in the audience spellbound, as I knew he would. Beyond being extremely talented, Joe is a magical individual, a transcendent soul abroad in an increasingly harsh, unforgiving land who has inspired in this often cold, uncaring heart the will to act. 

Ideally, some time during 2019 Joe will take up residence in a room or studio apartment in a mid-Hudson Valley town with reasonably convenient bus or train access to New York City. Joe does not at present drive a car, although he has plans to learn. He’s working on his GED. He’s getting his teeth fixed. I will gladly take him anywhere he needs to go and, within reason, act as a resource for him to thrive and prosper. Through the foundation, I may be seeking temporarily funding for his travels, musical equipment, etc. I am certain that, surrounded by a helpful community and freed from the restrictions of his former life in the city, he will blossom into what he was meant to be. Maybe you can help in some way. If so, drop me a line at biffthuringer@gmail.com, or call me at 914-388-8670. 

And thank you for your attention.

Steve/Biff

 From left: Joe Copeland, Masa Shimizu, Milo Zwerling, Steve Hopkins. 1994.

From left: Joe Copeland, Masa Shimizu, Milo Zwerling, Steve Hopkins. 1994.

A demo reel somebody put together for Milo in 2012. Classic Joe Copeland at 3:15.