"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Unky Funkle

Every family has its "black sheep", and mine was my Uncle Larry. When I was growing up in Massachusetts in the late 50's, I seldom got to see but often heard about my father's brother, whom my mother referred to -- with obvious disgust -- as "your drinkin' uncle". Larry lived in Montreal, and for most of his life eked out a meager living as (gasp!) a musician, a career choice my parents considered to be somewhat less than respectable. They couldn't understand why he never seemed to want to find, as they put it, "a real job" like my dad had at The Shoe, (United Shoe Machinery Corp., a major New England employer and 20th-century North Shore landmark).

But the nine-to-five life was not for Uncle Larry. He played sax and clarinet in a jazz/swing orchestra and toured all over Canada and the Northeast, where his band appeared most often in night clubs. It was probably due to spending so much time in these venues that he acquired a taste for drink (thus my mother's nickname), and he could well have been an alcoholic. But back in those days, alcoholism was not widely regarded as an illness worthy of medical treatment, but rather as a personal weakness, and in my mother's eyes Uncle Larry was just a drunk, plain and simple. Looking back on it with what I know now, it's also altogether possible that he may have occasionally indulged in something stronger than booze (as was the custom of a number of jazz musicians of that era), although I can't say for sure. My dad hinted at this once or twice, but I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, and it's impossible to know now if he ever had any actual proof or was merely suspicious.

On at least two occasions, my family took me along on the 300-mile drive from Boston to Montreal to visit him. Of course, at the tender age of ten or eleven, I would hardly have been allowed into any club where he might have been appearing to hear him play. But Uncle Larry always seemed to have a special fondness for me, his only nephew, and would serenade me on the sax at his home while I sat at his feet, listening in raptured amazement. Until that point in my life, the only music I had ever heard coming from a live instrument had been my school's marching band; this was something totally different. It might have been Goodman, Coltrane, or Monk, but I had never heard anything like it before. It damn sure wasn't John Phillip Sousa, I knew that -- and I loved it. He would close his eyes and blow these incredible licks, then look at me with a twinkle as he curled a smile around his reed. He wasn't just playing the music, he was feeling it and breathing it with "soul", although that's not a word that was heard much back then. I'm pretty certain that if I have any musical genes in my body (which I like to think I do), I got them from him. I know without any doubt that I got my love of music and improvisation from my Uncle Larry. I worshiped him, and could never understand why my parents were so ashamed of him.

I only saw Uncle Larry a few times before he died from a sudden illness in the mid 60's, when I was about 14 or 15. I'll never forget my mother's reaction when she learned of his death: "good riddance," she said. I was shocked, and angry. In retrospect, it seems very strange to me that my parents were less than forthcoming when I asked for details of how he died, and why only my father went to his funeral, leaving me and my mom at home. It bothers me that those questions will never be answered, but that's water over the bridge now.

Today, nearly 40 years later, the tables have turned and I am the Funky Uncle to my only nephew whom I am incredibly fond of. (I may not be considered the "black sheep" of the family, but my earlier career in the radio and record business brought me awfully close.) My nephew Jeffrey will be mortified if he should happen to read this, but I recall that when he was a very little tyke, I used to bounce him on my knee. Back then he had trouble saying his own name, which came out "Reh-ree"; we uncles and grandparents thought this was incredibly cute, and for the longest time that was our nickname for him. I suspect he hated the name (particularly when we still called him this long after he turned 21), but tolerated it because, well, that's just the swell sort of kid he was. If I were to call him this to his face today, however, I suspect I might get a fork in the eyeball or at the very least a very dirty look, so I will refrain.

In any case, the kid is all grown up and is making one heckuva name for himself as a photographer based in Noo Yawk City. He also has galleries in L.A. and Tokyo. Before starting his own business, he spent many years in fashion photography, and you probably saw his work if you ever looked at any glossy glamor mags like Vogue or Vanity Fair. These days, he specializes in what I would call "organic" photography: the relationship between light, space and color in objects such as plants, animals, glass, and water. While many of his images look digitally manipulated, he shoots on film and then uses chemical processes in the darkroom to create stunning works of art. Here are but two small samples:

In the last year or so, he has made some major scores. A number of his photographs were selected to grace the set of "My Super X Girlfriend", starring Uma Thurman. Here are two low-res screen shots from the movie of Uma standing in front of his artwork:

Later this year (scheduled release date, 12/17), look for his artwork to appear in "The Tourist" with Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, and Michelle Williams. He's also been featured on the cover of the Miami Herald's Home and Design magazine (the green photo in the center):

Jeffrey Rothstein: remember the name. He's going to be big-time megawatt famous, and his Funky Uncle Toast is proud as hell. His Great-Uncle Larry would be too.


  • At 3/28/2007 11:14:00 PM, Blogger Chandira said…

    Wow!!! So cool!!!

    Hey,I am that black sheep.. lol

    You and he both might like to check out www.daplastique.com for some interesting artwork, not that dissimilar, and coming from me, that's a HUGE compliment, as it's Adi Da's artwork, and it will be in the Venice Biennale this year!! :-)
    I so envy artisic and musical talent.

  • At 3/30/2007 07:21:00 PM, Blogger Daisy Martin said…

    How awesome. His photos are so good. I am incrediably jealous. In fact I am so jealous that I can't spell for squat tonight.

    I can remember my mother and step father taking me in bars to listen to musicians in the late 60's and during the 70's. Times were different. People where I am from didn't think much about a kid sitting up at the bar coloring on her coloring book. Sad, eh?


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