Mike Jewell was considered a bad kid. He was the Jim Morrison of the 4th grade, he just didn’t seem to care about rules. Not the way I did. Mike and I had a brief run. I think he tortured animals and played with fire. He showed me a magazine he referred to as “O-U-I.” It was stashed in a well in the middle of his yard. One night three of us slept on top of a trailer, gazing at the stars. He taught me how to shoplift, then said he’d tell my mom if I didn’t keep stealing. I decided to just tell my mom and cut out the middleman.
What he wanted me to steal were screws and nails to build another tree fort.
Only a few days earlier, much earlier in our relationship (as time passes for a child), I went to Mike’s house after school. It was a one-storey square box with two windows; the yard hadn’t been raked in the fall nor cleaned up after the snow melted. In his bedroom, he said, “This is going to blow your mind.” He lowered the lights and turned on one of those Spencer’s Gifts disco lights that rotates from the heat of the bulb, throwing colored blobs on the walls. I lay on a bed and he played the 45rpm of “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot, which I’d never heard. I listened with my eyes open, the guitar line repeating along to the insistent up and down of the guitar and bass groove. Why this song was suited to a trippy light show, I don’t know, but I enjoyed it. The record faded then we went outside to the large willow tree he had made into a tent.
Under this tree, made private with blankets hung on all sides, he fashioned a sort of Moroccan lean-to on Cemetery Rd in Phoenix, NY. A few tables and trinkets — some candles — it was unlike any tree fort I’d seen. For one thing, it was on the ground, and it wasn’t as groovy as his psychedelic bedroom. We parted ways, and I rode my bike into the village.
Heading back home, I was shocked to see the tree engulfed in flames. I watched as the blankets and everything plastic inside burned with colors of yellow, red, green, flashes of blue. I heard Mike through the bedroom window, getting a whipping from his mother, his yelps over the sirens of the fire truck on the way.
I had a few tree forts in my day. Like so many vacation homes, most of my time was spent fixing it up and not enough time enjoying it. Often I would pitch a tent in the yard all summer long, sleeping outside, and leaving a patch of dead grass by Labor Day weekend. There’d be no sign posted, “No Girls Allowed,” but it might read, “No Mom Allowed.” My last tree fort was that same mildewy tent on a platform atop a scaffold fifteen feet high. Shaded by poplar trees, I studied for my school finals while listening to cassettes. Then I got a car.
While I don’t feel the urgent need now to escape like when I was a kid, I still spend hours alone in a special space away from home. I have put together my studios in bedrooms, basements, and some properly designed recording spaces. It’s a blessing that there’s no cellphone signal in my current studio, buried under layers of rebar and concrete. It’s a place to hunker down, get to work, screw off, experiment...but it’s not a rec room or a club house like some other “studios” I see.
I’m sorting out the fine differences between a lair, the “man cave,” and a tree fort. The lair is a place you might bring people; the man cave – stay out, he’s probably up to no good, or healing from injuries inflicted in the outside world, I’m not sure! I think the distinction is that the tree fort is a place to be alone and not be disturbed, but in a good way.
Recorded at Tape Vault at Hyde St, Nov 2012 - Sept 2013. CvS - vocals and instruments; Michael Israel - Drums.