Friday, October 29, 2010

Caroline Jaffe remembered

It's been one year, almost to the day, since my dear friend Caroline Jaffe, better known as CJ, passed away, at the age of 67, after a short and brutal fight with cancer. I haven't, admittedly, given her a great deal of waking thought recently, but she's appeared in my dreams a number of times these last weeks--the subconscious is adept at addressing our lapses. For those that never knew her, Caroline Jaffe was a secret legend, a supremely original singer and songwriter who held court Sunday evening's at Chicago's Gallery Cabaret. In my clumsy eulogy, written the day after CJ died and posted on this blog, I described her as one of the greatest performers of modern times. Her residency at the Gallery was on a par with Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, the Marx Brothers in their early vaudeville days, Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, Bob Dylan at the Gaslight, the Ramones at CBGB's, Chicago's unheralded Nightwatch at the relentlessly seedy Lakeview Lounge. CJ was also, in a thousand ways, a divine comedian, a fountain of light, a cosmic hummingbird, a prophet of the sublime, a staunch naturist, the equine spirit incarnate. This didn't seem overstated then, and it doesn't seem overstated now. CJ was absolutely one of a kind.

A couple of weeks ago, while working the beet harvest in North Dakota, I had occasion to talk to my friend Bill about CJ. Bill and I were having a bit of a heart-to-heart on love and death--his uncle had just passed away the night before. I hadn't discussed CJ in a long time, and I was fairly drunk. A year since her death, the story of my friendship with CJ seemed suddenly surreal. I'd seen her play a number of times at the Gallery, but it wasn't until my birthday, in the summer of 2009, that we properly met. My friend Yony arranged for us to visit CJ at her home in Hammond, Indiana--I'd been dying to interview her. So many of her songs were about riding horses, we'd somehow concluded that she lived on a horse-farm. In fact, she lived in a somewhat squalid basement unit underneath her old friend Texas Fred, with five cats for company. We shared a magical afternoon, drinking wine and smoking weed as she shared her life story, no-holds-barred, with me and my tape recorder. She was in high spirits that day, though she complained of persistent aches and pains and thought it might be time to see a doctor--she was uninsured, and had been putting it off. What I really need is to get into a swimming pool, she speculated. She told me about her family's history of cancer, and seemed to think she'd beaten the odds by means of prodigious pot-smoking--recent research, she said, suggested marijuana's cancer-blocking properties.

Two days later she could barely move, and Texas Fred dragged her to the hospital. She underwent some tests, and was diagnosed with stage four cancer that was already spreading throughout her body. She was given months to live.

The next couple of weeks, miraculously, CJ continued performing at the Gallery. She was frail, and had to be led up to the piano on a walker, but once she sat down there on her lucky stool and began to play she was transcendent. She played the regular Sunday-night open mic, closing out the evening around two with a triumphant set of rarely-played songs and a totally rapt audience. The next night she was back, in her trademark red hat, for her monthly Monday-night showcase, and Yony was on hand to film her. She played beautifully, but there were only about five people in attendance, and she was clearly exhausted. It was one of the most poignant performances I've ever seen. She was back the next couple of Sundays as well, sitting in a chair outside the Gallery and smoking weed with a gaggle of admirers and well-wishers. She smiled and sang and laughed her raspy, raucous laugh, and talked about beating the cancer. Her last night at the Gallery, I signed up for the open-mic and performed several of CJ's songs that I had learned that week. When I finished, CJ was weeping.

Then she was back in the hospital. Yony and I went a couple of times to visit her, bringing along, at her request, trays of pot brownies. She told us, conspiratorially, that she was sharing them with the nurses. She continued to sing songs into my tape recorder--songs from her "vault" that otherwise would never be heard again. CJ had already designated me her official biographer (and introduced me as such to the nursing staff), and now she began charging me with an even more monumental task. You, she said, are going to keep my music alive.

Bill interjected at this point in the story. I know where this is going, he said. You fell in love. He was more or less right, aside from the vague, Harold-and-Maude-type sexual connotations that his tone suggested. My relationship with CJ had progressed with alarming speed. We talked on the phone every few days, and one day she told me, rather out of the blue, I love you. I love you too, I answered, without a moment's thought, realizing as I said it how deeply I meant it.

Some of CJ's longtime friends--Texas Fred and his wife, their daughter, and CJ's old horse-riding companion, a sweet, suburban tranny named Joanie--seemed at first suspicious of me and my intentions. Who was this kid swooping in out of nowhere, doing all these interviews, learning CJ's songs? But as weeks went by, they opened up to Yony and I. CJ was in and out of the hospital, and in September she came back home. While she was glad to be back home with her cats, CJ's house was dangerously dilapidated--one night she slipped and fell on a pile of garbage leading to her bathroom, and had to scream until Texas Fred came and picked her up. Her bed was covered in a mountain of old newspapers and cat shit, and she had been sleeping in a chair in front of the TV. Yony and I paid a couple of excruciating visits, trying to help clean the place up. CJ was in-and-out, at moments eerily lucid and at others lost to some distant realm of pain and death.

The last time I saw CJ she was back in the hospital. Joanie was there as well, feeding her and singing by her bedside. CJ looked better than she had in some time--there was color in her face, and she was cracking jokes. I held her hand and she told me I was like a son to her. CJ had in fact had a son once, at the age of 15, who she put up for adoption and never saw or heard from again. Now she could imagine, on her deathbed, that her son had returned at last.

I got a voicemail from Texas Fred a few days later. He reported the news in his typically blunt fashion. Liam, this is Fred. CJ's dead. Click. I was at work when I got the message. I went and hid in the bathroom--I think I cried, but I don't remember. I'd known for months that CJ was dying, but there was a yawning chasm between dying and dead.

That week, CJ was featured in the Chicago Reader's Secret History of Chicago Music comic. It was as close as she'd ever come to the fame and glory she so longed for, but she wasn't around to see it. Then there was a hastily-planned memorial night at the Gallery. Her portrait was up on stage, and her stool and red hat, but other than that it was almost just a typical night at the Gallery. There was a bit of eulogizing, and a lot of drinking, but I was the only one who played any of CJ's songs. It was pretty depressing, actually, and I left early.

I haven't been back to the Gallery Cabaret since. A few weeks later Texas Fred called me and left a bitter-sounding message. I guess CJ was the only one that you guys cared about, he said, and hung up. It wasn't true--I actually liked Texas Fred a great deal. But going back to the Gallery would have been painful, and pointless.

In the year since CJ died, I've been basically derelict in my duties. I've done little, I admit, to keep the music alive. I did put together a sort of best-of CD, which I mailed off to some record labels along with a little press packet, but only one label showed any interest, and their interest eventually tapered off. Bill told me I should be easy on myself--I couldn't enslave myself to CJ's memory, after all, I had my own life to live. Which I suppose is true. But the fact is that I get pleasure out of sharing CJ's music. It's not as if it's a burden.

So, then, here are a couple of videos of CJ playing at the Gallery Cabaret, filmed by Yony Leyser in August of 2009--if you look at her hands you can see her hospital bracelets. I hope you find as much magic in these performances as I do.


  1. As someone with the same name, this story is moving and compelling. I wish Caroline Jaffe that she rests in peace, and may she be in heaven singing her heart out.
    -Caroline Jaffe

  2. Caroline was a long-time family friend, having lived with us for a while and being a long-time friend of my step-father Jerry and my mother Judy. As a child she took me horseback riding and taught me a little guitar (sadly long since forgotten). I have pictures of her in the 1970s, living in our house with her dozen cats. I think I have a tape of her somewhere singing Big Men and Big Horse and a bunch of other great songs. Her passing is very sad.

    Glenn Graff