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The Clothes of the Dead
Poem: Four Hateful Epitaphs

2003-03-04

s of this past weekend, I wear the clothes of the dead. That phrase, "the clothes of the dead," has a bit of a history, by the way. Back when I was a theater critic in Minneapolis, I knew an amiable, bearded fellow named Dean J. Seal, who was then in charge of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Seal had labored away in the trenches of performing arts for decades, and, as is often the case with people who live on the margins of established society, he had developed his share of interesting friendships and strange habits. This phrase, "the clothes of the dead," came as a result of both.

In the late Eighties, Seal was a member of an all-but-forgotten band called Bongos, Bass & Bob, and was responsible for releasing exactly one LP, the hopefully titled Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here's Bongos, Bass & Bob. On the liner notes, Seal is credited as being "Bongos," while his longtime musical partner Rob Elk was credited as "Bob." (The two performed together for years as a duo called Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal, a novelty a cappella group that got some airplay on National Public Radio; they are arguably most famous for a song titled "If I Can't Go To Manhattan, Bring A Manhattan To Me," if only because it still occasionally gets played on the Dr. Demento show.) Nobody forgot about the Sex Pistols in the wake of this new band. Instead, Bongos, Bass & Bob would probably be entirely forgotten were it not for the presence of a third performer, credited as "Bass": None other than Penn Gillette of the notorious comedy magic duo Penn and Teller. In fact, Teller himself makes a surprisingly noisy appearance on the LP: Although he is famous in the act for his stony silence, Teller sings backup vocal on the songs "Clearly Unhealthy" and "Girls with Guns."

So now we know of Seal's interesting relationships, and, to complete the story, I must tell you of his strange habit. In all fairness, the habit in question does not seem particularly unusual to me, but it tickled Penn Jillette enough that he wrote a song about it: Dean Seal dresses himself in tattered old vintage clothes, most of which he accumulated at estate sales. Apparently, Jillette's morbid sense of humor was struck by the fact that Seal's collection of thin Forties-era ties and shiny sharkskin suits came from the homes of the recently deceased, as, on the LP, he barks out a vaguely bluesy number called "The Clothes of the Dead." That song would later come back to haunt Jillette -- he reports that he performed it once and, when he sang "Do I look like Versace in the Clothes of the Dead?" he was accosted by two men who thought he was gay bashing. Pushing ensued, and Jillette was taken to a drunk tank. Humor can be a dangerous thing -- a certain percentage of any audience will be so humor-impaired that they either will not realize a joke has been made, or, as in this case, will misinterpret the joke, turn bright red with rage, and wish to start shouting on the spot.

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I do not imagine that Jillette will be writing any new songs about this subject matter, and, even if he were, the clothes that I am currently wearing probably would not strike him as particularly funny -- the story behind them isn't. They belonged to a neighbor of the parents of a friend, Nicole. She and I dated a few years ago, and have remained chummy, and Nicole's parents have an endearing habit of giving me things. A few weeks ago they bought a microwave at the Salvation Army for $5; It currently resides in my kitchen. My refrigerator is filled with food from their health food coop, some of it inedible, tasting, as health food coop food often does, like chunks of cardboard. When I most recently visited them, they took me across the street to the home of their neighbor. The house is no longer inhabited, as the neighbor passed away a few weeks ago, rather suddenly. Cancer, I believe. Nicole's parents had lived opposite this neighbor for quite a long time, and had always lived in his shadow, to a degree. He was an inveterate boaster, talking proudly of an impressive career in academics, the military, and in law. This neighbor's house was filled with expensive electronics: The upstairs has a room that was dominated by an enormous television set and hundreds of videotapes. Even more impressively, the downstairs had two rooms, one consumed by a massive stereo system (the speakers alone, Nicole's father told me, must have cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars), the other dominated by a Power Mac computer and 20" cinema display screen, all purchased within the past year.

But despite the neighbors pretensions -- and they were grandiose, as he reportedly spent most of his time sniffing dismissively at his neighbors -- the fellow wasn't all that he seemed. On his deathbed, he took to pleading with Nicole's parents, begging them not to abandon him. And when his family showed up, the cause for his panic became apparent. His daughter revealed that his astounding autobiography, which he lorded over his neighbors, was a fabrication. His had been a life of lies, and now, in his last moments, when the truth finally came out, he was terrified that he would be abandoned as a result. He worried that the very people who he had spent years quietly cowing with his feigned superiority, upon discovering that he was as common as the next man, might leave him to die alone.

They didn't, of course. And after he died, Nicole's family helped his family put the man's affairs in order, selling off part of his estate (Nicole's brother is a longtime antiques dealer). What wouldn't sell, they gave away, and so I wound up with several pairs of pants, a pair of shoes, and a sweater from the deceased. His tastes tended toward the expensive, and, while these clothes do rather look like old man clothes, as the pants are powder blue or khaki and the shoes are clunky and look orthopedic, they suit me just fine. I have felt that I needed to dress a little differently, anyway. Usually I dress in cowboy clothes, but my singing cowboy persona doesn't seem entirely appropriate for my poetic endeavors. I do not, after all, write cowboy poetry.

It is in the memory of this neighbor that I print this poem. We would do well to mind that when we die, people do not despise us nonetheless, and this neighbor was very fortunate that, despite his sham greatness, he nonetheless had neighbors who would stand by him at his time of need. He could have been the subject of a hateful epitaph, and wasn't, and this very fact speaks to the real greatness of his neighbors, who he had spent years belittling.

Four Hateful Epitaphs

I.
Betsy Bell
Are you in Hell?
If you are
It suits you well.

II.
You were not liked
Donovan Tate.
Someone fed you poison,
Which you ate.

III.
You fell down
And crushed your head,
And Mrs. Brown
We're glad you're dead.

IV.
When we heard you burned
In a terrible fire
We let up a cheer
Mr. Martin Dwyer.

(By the way, I have added a "calendar" button to this page -- look to the right under "store." Check back often to see where I will be reading my dreadful poetry.)

Cheers!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 11:11 a.m.

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