Meet Skip Blum. Little serpents are dancing in the air above his head.
He's lanky and old and looks that guy who'd spent countless years road-managing Little Feat or The Allman Brothers back in the '70s crossed with that guy who'd travel to the Hamptons and Florida with an ounce of blow in his briefcase talking endlessly about the recording studio and record label he owned that nobody had ever heard of. Maybe they were the same guy. (Wait. Skip says he used to sell ounces of blow in the Hamptons and down in Florida.) Or maybe he's some Coen Brothers caricature, a walking, talking allegory for the decay of the classic rock 'n' roll era and its attendant sensibilities, what's left of its rock-star scheming, its endless cash cows, its cocaine cowboy casualties.
Anyway, "I passed my nine lives," Skip says, exhaling another serpent of meth smoke. Then he picks up a guitar and strums along to The Kinks' "Celluloid Heroes," a semi-tender rock 'n' roll epistle to failed dreams if ever there was one.
He stops playing and dumps what's left of his meth out on little desk and pinches a few more translucent chunks and drops them into the glass pipe.
"I'm not like these people around here," he says, lifting the pipe. "They smoke this shit and they can't stop; on and on for days. I only smoke a little, and then I play guitar. I sleep a lot, every night."
He places his lighter under the bowl, sparks a flame and sucks. The flavored vitamin water in the low curve of the serpentine pipe bubbles ("adds a bubblegum flavor!") and the meth vapor curlicues, passing between his lips into his lungs, ballooning his blood vessels, and his heart and nervous system kick into overdrive and serotonin rushes his brain.
Yet he just sits here. No happy jigs. No inner-animal unleashed. No bizarrely contorted countenance. His thin white face is strangely stolid, whether he's high or not, like it's chiseled into a trunk of a birch tree. Dude would make a kickass three-card Monte man.
In fact, little vitality pumps through Skip's limbs, not like you'd expect after a long pull from the pipe. For one thing he's suffered a couple of strokes in recent years. Amazingly, he sucks on an inhaler for his chronic pulmonary disease and talks of collapsed lungs. I ask if the meth is such a good idea.
"It can't really help," he says.
Then he muses leisurely about his favorite music, talks about playing with Dire Straits decades ago (uncredited, but he produces evidence of it), a stint living in Jamaica ("I was a white Rasta") where he befriended and jammed with reggae star Justin Hines and smoked the kind of weed that guaranteed you wouldn't get up off of the street if you happened to trip. He relates tales of traveling to islands with Dick Clark and his wife, and of old friends, like actors Melissa Gilbert and Bo Brinkman and how they loved his Manhattan apartment so much they purchased the one above his. Other yarns involving bit players and East Coast has-beens and urban-legend thugs.
He leafs through squeaky pages of a photo album that show his family's spread on Long Island's gold coast (Muttontown), one of America's wealthiest burgs. Yellowed snaps reveal a fresh-faced, long-haired Skip with the horses and white German shepherds he raised, and his mother and dad, his two brothers, an ex-wife and a daughter, and he points out shaggy-headed musician friends who died too young. He tells of a cousin, a higher up in the Jewish Defense League, who was gunned down in New York City.
Skip knows that his life's narrative is extremely listener-friendly, but it comes in fits and starts. The visuals help because he can't remember much of it. He has no memories of childhood or high school, for example.
"You'd have to ask my psychiatrist."
Let's back up. I met Skip through a Lyft driver who said his sounded straight from a Scorsese script. Stuff about how he was connected to the mob and how, at one point, he smoked two million dollars worth of cocaine.
I drive Skip to the Walgreens on Speedway and Craycroft. And though his face looks like what might result if you combined Joey Ramone with Howard Stern, with added hard road, and his speaking voice sounds like Winnie the Pooh's Eeyore with a light Bronx patois, he strolls into Walgreens with an air of a person who once had a lot of money, like an old English rock star who's been hitless too long, sequestered in some over-mortgaged countryside estate, and with his cane and flowing gray mane there's an almost diva-like grace and eccentricity—that particular kind that only money and privilege and age cultivates. Yet the 63-year-old wears ratty blue jeans with worn knees, a tired green shirt, and carries a camo backpack.
Dave, the grinning man behind the register, says "Hey! Skip! How are ya today?
Skip steps past him and says, "couldn't be better."
Dave looks at me, chuckles, and adds, "Skip pays the light bill here."
I follow Skip as he negotiates the aisles, sometimes the same one three times, comparing prices and collecting things: A box of cookies, hydrogen peroxide, crackers, flavored water, gum; "snacks" to fortify his body so "I don't faint." He collects a script he'd called in earlier. He takes pills for anxiety disorder, for his cholesterol, for his depression, and so on. So many pills.
He's had the anxiety since he was a kid. And there are skin problems. Forearm scars from cancerous operations, and the cancer is still in his body.
The strokes he suffered landed him at Campana Del Rio, an assisted living facility for the elderly. Skip laughs at the inherent futility of that:
"I'd wear nothing but my cowboy boots and underwear around the place, in the front, the dining room. I'd play my guitar through an amp in my room. It was me and all these 90-year-olds. Of course I got kicked out of there."
Skip talks a bit about "the mob," claims if he says anything he might be in real trouble. "They're still around. It's bullshit that it doesn't exist, there are crews in Tucson." Says he was once popped by he FBI but they let him go. He's been to jail on drug charges too. He tells me he has money but he's not allowed to really know how much, or where it is. His dad left an estate, life insurance, and that's all he knows. His condo is bought and paid for. His brother handles his finances.
He never sees his two grown daughters either, both born in New York City, because he says he was freebasing so much coke when they were very young that they all left him, wife too. "I miss them all the time."
He heads down more aisles, stops and grabs a box of cookies not realizing he already has the same box in his basket.
We hit Headhunters tobacco shop on Speedway, then Rainbow Guitars on Campbell. Everyone seems to know him. As the day progresses other things about the man begin stand out. He's perpetually self-deprecating and fiercely intelligent. He even earned his teaching credentials and taught fourth grade for six months in Tucson, an attempt to jumpstart a normal life. It didn't last.
Skip was born in the Bronx and has two younger brothers. Says his dad hit paydirt working for a Rothschild in finance and made a fortune in banking.
But after high school he split for Israel, busked guitar on the streets of Tel Aviv, on the coast of the Dead Sea. He weathered bombings during one of many Lebanese-Isreali conflicts, during the rise of the PLO, in the '70s. When he ran out of money he was stranded in London.
He later graduated from Syracuse University, degreeed in marketing and advertising, and got his masters from Hofstra University in Florida. He turned down mad job offers and instead worked in a leather shop next to the Hell's Angels on the bowery, right when punk was breaking in Manhattan. He was a regular at the China Club, sometimes CBGB and the Mudd Club. He got involved with a recording studio. "I wanted to be a rock star. Blum lived in Little Italy for years, at one point made a tidy fortune heading up a giant limo company "owned by the mob."
Skip arrived in Tucson nearly two decades ago, holed up in the Catalina Foothills.
* * * *
There's a kind of drug-dealer futility beneath the surface of Skip's sprawling, boxy-anonymous condo complex near Wilmot on Tucson's east side. A suffocating despair in the afternoon light feels like heartbreak in the sparely furnished place.
The phone rings and Skip learns that the guy who brings meth into his complex got arrested. Skip ends the call, says, "he got caught with $100K in cash. Eh, they're all going away sooner or later."
The he shows me his extensive collection of custom-made knives that he uses for protection and how he fitted his place with bulletproof windows.
"I've been ripped off too many times."
That's when he asks if it's cool if he smokes some meth.
The smell of the crystal makes my heart skip, years of meth sobriety feel inconsequential, which is a death knell. I want into that festering, shuttered world, to never come up for air. This is the first time I've been around meth since I managed to quit it, and my entire body screams for it, and I'm frightened, feel vaguely nauseas, but abstain. People who are sad adore crystal meth, and it's no wonder.
Defined and discounted by his mistakes, Skip's self-worth is long past the point of shaming himself because of the drugs he's doing, like his power never outweighs his emotional pain, never allows for the acceptance of how things will never likely go his way again. He doesn't come across as self-pitying or victim-y either. He's regretful, contrite.
Skip now just wants to get by. I feel only tenderhearted and sympathetic toward him.
"I've tried to grow up," he says. "I haven't been able to. I'm just a fuck-up. That's why I'm still here, because god won't have me up there."
"But I get upset," he continues. "I get depressed. I'm alone a lot, and I wake up scared all the time. I got scared when my parents died; who was going to take care of me? I still don't know what's going on in my life, like where I'm going to be in 10 years. Music is my life, but I have no goals, nothing to look forward to."
Before I'm out of there, Skip cues up a cassette demo of a New York City band he was in years ago; tunes he co-wrote and played guitar on. We're in his spare bedroom, which sees lots of cared-for acoustic and electric guitars on stands, some vintage Fenders and Gibsons.
Blum can't remember the exact recording dates, but it sounds like the late '80s or early '90s. The tunes are written, performed and executed well. One sounds like a classic rock radio hit, would've sidled up nicely alongside Night Ranger's "Sister Christian"— big guitars, chesty vocals, syrupy pathos.
Skip sings along: "I just might make it out of here, I just might ... "