Tuesday, May 07, 2013

So many books, so little time.

I know it sounds like a pity bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan, but that really sums up the loss of Randy Rohn, an outstanding writer and even better husband, father and friend. A prolific advertising writer for more than three decades, he had only recently moved into publishing short fiction and even a novel. I know for a fact he was working on another one, and who knows how many more he would have produced had he not been cruelly removed from this life.

When I first turned to long-form fiction myself, he was one of the few I trusted to give me feedback, even if his feedback amounted to "It's the best book about jazz and lesbians I've ever read." (note: this is an oversimplification) I truly respected his talent and judgement, and my writing will no doubt suffer for his loss. We had even planned on writing a book together, "Talisman"-style, where I would upload a chapter to Dropbox, then he would follow. I still may write that book, although it will lack his unique edge (and more importantly, vast knowledge of the world in which it takes place).

The older we get, our chances to make friends grow slimmer and slimmer. That's not to say we can't have a large social circle, or be surrounded by people with overlapping interests, but true friends get harder and harder to come by. Particularly ones you'll hang onto for 25 years.

What follows is an excerpt of the words I spoke at his memorial service. I delivered these words after opening a brand new bottle of Cadenhead Whisky and pouring a shot. Not being much of a Scotch guy, I was saving it to share with him when we next saw each other, so it seemed appropriate. The pastor was not amused, which made it even more fitting.

First of all, I’d like to thank Randy for getting me out of work. He was always good at that. But I would also like to acknowledge that, for a consummate writer who knew just the right word to use in just the right way—Randy, your timing is awful. 

Because Randy was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, I’m pretty sure that he would hate for his departure from this world to be cause for complete sorrow. That, Randy, is easier said than done. It’s like turning off the music and telling everyone to keep dancing. 

I’ve known Randy for 25 years. More than half my life, but less than half of his. So I’ll let others fill in those blanks and tell the childhood, high school and college stories.

Like any relationship, ours has gone through phases. There was a phase when we saw each other nearly every day in Chicago, took production trips together, hit the town together, went to lunch, concerts and CD stores on a regular basis. When he changed jobs, we still got together regularly, albeit with more scheduling. My wife and I made frequent trips to hang out with Randy's family in the suburbs. To our wives’ chagrin, he and I would typically disappear into the basement, oblivious to those upstairs, and have an informal listening party, popping the caps off beers and popping CDs into the player. 

The next phase was the longest, when we lived in separate states, but thanks to the Internet, the communication and music sharing continued, and there were occasional visits, such as my trip to judge the Evansville Addys and his to christen my son and judge the Raleigh Addys.
But not enough visits. Not nearly enough.

A new phase had just begun. A promising new career for Randy as the creative director for an agency in Statesville, North Carolina. I know it wasn’t his or his wife's first choice, but selfishly, I was really looking forward to it. My son—his godson—has a soccer tournament in Statesville in May, and just last week, he and I were gearing up to see each other for the first time in a decade. We were going to make up for all those years of all that distance between us.

So again Randy, the timing? It blows.

Husband, Father, Rocker, Writer and Friend. That was the Randy Rohn I knew, and he excelled in all those roles. I thought I was a big Beatles fan. Then I met Randy. I thought I knew my way around a radio script. Then I met Randy. I thought I had a sense of what a strong, loving family looked like. Then I met Randy’s.

He was one of those rare people that brought out the best in others. I know I always stepped up my game around Randy. When I was with him, I felt sharper somehow—more observant, more articulate, more sarcastic. Which is why he made such a good writing partner. 

Even when our jobs separated us physically, Randy’s presence in my life was akin to that of the “R” on my computer keyboard. I didn’t use it all the time, but I could always turn to it when I needed it. And at our age, it was a presence I took for granted. Losing Randy goes beyond losing a key off my keyboard. I’ve lost a letter of my alphabet.

You know when you’re a kid and something doesn’t go your way--your parents inevitably say “life isn’t fair.” And it isn’t. And it’s never been more acutely pointed out than right now. Life gave us one Randy Rohn, and we weren’t done with him yet. But if anyone could tell you that life isn’t fair, it was Randy. Yet after any setback, he remained positive. The guy radiated optimism, which makes it ironic that Paul McCartney wasn’t his favorite Beatle. And when you were around him, you got caught up in it. Whatever terrible thing was going on in the world at the time was forgotten. He had a terrific sense of humor, but he was also a terrific audience, particularly when it came to laughing at himself. He gave us a lot of great material, but more often than not, he was in on the joke. 

When I see a movie, read a book or hear a new song, I find myself frequently thinking, “What would Randy make of this?” Note that I didn't say, “What would Randy do?” In most cases, one would not want to do—or even know—what Randy would do, particularly after a couple of drinks. The stories you’ll hear throughout the day will be proof of that.

We all know a great injustice has been done. And the temptation here is to be angry, to feel cheated. But those words and those emotions don’t even belong in the same sentence as Randy Rohn. He had plenty of cause to be angry from time to time, and I even saw him get cheated. The day Kristin was born—the day I mentioned earlier—he left the office in such a rush to get to the hospital that he entrusted someone else to present his scripts on his behalf. I don’t need to tell you what happened next. Was he cheated? Yes. Did he get angry? No. He was too full of joy over his new daughter to let petty office politics bring him down. Randy always knew what really mattered.

I wanted Randy at my funeral. I wanted Randy to DJ my funeral. So this, this situation is unacceptable. But accept it we must. Randy was nothing if not resilient, so we need to apply that same thinking as we struggle to move on without him.

In his incredible book “Hang On Sloopy,” there’s an underlying thread of melancholy throughout. The main character spends a lot of time looking back and wishing he could freeze time, because things were always better “back then.” But the book ends with the character finally moving past those feelings—although not without some sadness. To quote Billy Joel, who barely qualifies as rock and roll in Randy’s eyes, even though he was a fan: “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” 

I like to picture him holding court in a corner booth of St. Peter’s Chophouse, with a rare porterhouse on his plate and a fresh Glenlivet in his hand. Elvis is on his right, John Lennon on his left. He’s saving a seat for Keith Richards, who is due any minute. Around the rest of the table are the friends and family who preceded him. 

Randy Rohn was a true original. He was such a damn interesting guy. He knew a lot about a lot. He cared a lot and he touched a lot of people. The world needs a lot more Randy Rohns. But there will ever be only be one. Thank God I was blessed to have him in my life.

Randy has left the building. And there will be no encore. But it was a hell of a performance, right? One we’ll be talking about for the rest of our days.

No comments: