On September 10th, 1980, a child was born unto Oscar and Frances Zalamia. They named him Christopher, perhaps in tribute to the patron saint of travelers, who used all seven-and-a-half feet of his height to ferry villagers across a swift river in Canaan, before being relieved of his head by the Romans. Or maybe it was in reference to Christopher Cross, whose “Sailing” topped the U.S. charts that Summer. Maybe as a harbinger of his future wizardy with numbers, Christiaan Huygens, Christian Goldbach, or Christoff Rudolph were the inspiration. Maybe the dog’s name was Chris.
The clan later settled in Pasadena, Maryland where, sixteen years later, strange tales reached me on the other side of town of a shadowy figure known as “Ichiban” who floated through the hallways of Chesapeake High School in a white lab coat and pilot’s goggles, filming movies on the family camcorder with titles like “Cup O’ Greased Lightning,” and “What The Fuck?” and either speaking fluent Japanese, or his own entirely made-up dialect (no one was in position to tell the difference). His SAT scores were the stuff of legend. Along with other town iconoclasts like Meatball – who could cover the entire alphabet in a single belch – and Weird Anthony – who could turn his skin purple and cold to the touch, and had once disappeared for three days before turning up in Scranton, PA claiming he had been abducted by aliens – he occupied his own wavelength. The rest of us simply admired.
But I never really knew Z until we ended up as college roommates a few years later. Rather than interact with human women, I played through multiple seasons of Tecmo Super Bowl in my bedroom, while Z worked through the David Lynch catalog at earsplitting volumes and recorded a groundbreaking solo album down the hall. (“Hello Frances, This is Darlene,” which features a manipulated answering machine message left for his Mom laid over a wicked synth riff is a bracing track.) We’d convene in the kitchen to share our misgivings about our third roomate, Jonathan, who’d taken to screaming out “HO!” at the tops of his lungs in the middle of the night for seemingly no reason, scaring the shit out of everyone. During our final year together, Z slept through an entire semester’s worth of Calculus 5 – or some such class – and then stayed up for four straight nights teaching himself the subject from the textbook. He got an A on the final, then went straight to his shift at the Marley Station Mall Kay-Bee toys. Solomente, Ichi.
After we’d both graduated and moved to the city, when the band needed someone who would be up for months of high-speed/low-brow adventure, and who was primed to appreciate the twisted slice of American pie we’re served through the portholes of an Econoline 350 – and who could also be trusted with our entire life’s savings stuffed inside a fanny pack - asking Z to come along was a no-brainer. Five years later, he’s become our buffer, our conspirator, our walking IMBD, the guy you come to when it’s 3:30 a.m. in a Motel 6 in Des Moines and you can’t sleep and just want to watch cat videos. More than that, he’s a human reminder of our better graces and I shudder to think where we’d be if he hadn’t been with us during the low times, the weird times, and everywhere in between. We’re endlessly grateful he’s spent so much of his life with us.
Z, Zala, Ichi, Bo-Z-Phus, Mr. Birthday, our Big Cat. I’m sorry I’m a little late for your birthday. (Alright, a month late).
This one’s for you.
Z in full “Ichiban” regalia, in Chespeake High’s 1998 Senior Superlatives. Shy, but not retiring.
Classic Bo-Z-Phus, on the beach in San Diego for the Fourth of July. We found this shirt at a boot outlet in Florence, Kentucky on Z’s first tour, and he wore it more or less every night for the next year behind the merch table. This was the “Mr. Birthday” year, where every night we’d announce from the stage that it was Z’s birthday, and try and cajole people into buying him drinks. Those in the know would great him with a hearty “Happy Birthday Z!” every time we rolled into town for years thereafter.
Big kisses for The Big Cat’s real 30th in Santa Barbara. We celebrated by getting drunk and spending the night on the beach. (Everyone but me that is, because I’d stumbled across this Wikipedia page a few months earlier and spent my night huddled on the back bench of The Diaper, sitting bolt upright every time I heard a sound outside.) The guys woke up with the sun to find a mother and children looking for seashells all around them, splayed out on the dunes.
Taking one last drag from Austin City Limits 2011. The big festivals all have people to sell our merch for us, so Z gets to spend a couple of days resting, recuperating, and rehydrating. While we were hanging out this night, I crashed for an hour in one of the backrooms of a communal trailer. Some guy peeked his head in, saw me laying there and asked “Are you on heroin?” I said no. ”Coke?” Again, no. ”Want some? It’ll pick you right up.” Thanks for the offer, bud. And yes, that’s an airbrushed George Jefferson shirt, found in a Pilot station in Indiana.
Broke down in West Texas. Less than four hours into a two-day drive between Laredo and Santa Fe on the Deer Tick tour, The Diaper blew a tire somewhere on the set of No Country for Old Men. We were over an hour from the nearest town – Sanderson, Texas – but they didn’t have a tow truck that could haul both our van and trailer, and AAA said the wait for someone to reach us would be three hours. Two hours later, they were still three hours away. Meanwhile, we were thirty miles from the Mexican border, Logan had the only bar of cell phone service between the five of us (but no data), and the sun was going down. Luckily, the Deer Tick guys passed us, huddled in the van in pitch blackness, and found someone in Sanderson who had a junked tire that just happened to fit a Ford Econoline 350 (this dude was discovered sitting outside of a gas station in the dark, no less). He drove out to us, did some wild Texas-tire-repairmen shit with only a weak flashlight focused on our tire, and we got the hell out of there, thankful for our rescue from the abyss. But not before Z’s grim visage captured the mood of those few hours.
Z at the Chinatown Best Western in Los Angeles. He’d stayed in L.A. during a two-week break between tours, running around Hollywood, going to B-movie festivals, and generally having the time of his life. When we all reconvened, this is the shape he was in for the start of a nine-week run that crossed the country three times in succession.
And here he is halfway through, backstage in Baltimore, ready for an audition for The Warriors remake. One of the interesting things about Z – a guy who exudes negative vanity – is that he’s tremendous at pulling off just about any outfit. Somebody will have a sleeveless black jean vest lying around, and somebody else will convince to try it on for kicks, and then he looks so natural in it you don’t want it back.
Like for instance, truck nuts.
And Melissa Etheridge’s old clothing.
Here he is sampling the worst French Canada has to offer. Rod is wearing a Burger King crown, which did nothing to convince the porc that got us going 20km over the speed limit to not give us a $200 (American) ticket. I mean, 20km, that’s like…two miles an hour or some shit. WE WERE SUBJECTING OUR FRIEND TO YOUR BASTARDIZED CADBURY CANDY – IS THAT NOT ENOUGH???
Something that can be said without hesitation about Our Man is that he is a friend to all animals. It’s like touring with St. Francis of Assissi the way he’s able to bond with strange animals in strange houses nearly instantly, like our friend Candace’s dog here (who’s name escapes me). And the cats backstage at the 9:30 Club…
…a rare moment of peace, somewhere on the road. The Descendents are probably on in his headphones, or maybe All. (Or maybe he’s basking in a re-listen to “Hi Frances, This is Darlene.”) Soon, he’ll load the cardboard boxes out, hoping that none of them busted during the drive, scattering shirts all over the damn trailer. Then there’ll be a dinner, the show, the load-out, and the hang in one continuous breeze. And then him and I will end the night crammed into a double bed at a cheap hotel repeating the van meme of the day, or just lines from this until we fall asleep. In the morning, we’ll laugh at the names he made up for the Soundscan forms the night before. Then we’ll get going again.
Those of you that have had the pleasure of meeting The Big Cat out there, we’d love to see your photos so send ‘em along…somehow. And I urge everyone to visit Z’s own blog, Rowsdowr.com, which will soon become an indispensable resource for those lovers of the weird, the beautiful, and the outright trashy. And seekers of sun beer.
Till next time…