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Shady and the Atomic Star Monkey

They had had a rough trip; they weren't on speaking terms when they drove through Kansas. They cracked open a few beers. They combed their long hair over their faces, put on sunglasses and hats, and posed for a picture with my cat. It was a happy day.

My brother Jeff has taken many noms de guerre in his young life. "Biff" was his name in middle school and high school. When teachers and administrators would send notes home to our parent(s), they would be addressed ‘To the Parents of Biff Sheahan". His personality is such that he’s usually the life of the party and/or the center of attention wherever he is. People in high school couldn’t believe that a nerd like me was related to an officially cool person.

"Sheahan, are you Biff’s brother?" the popular kids in my grade would ask me.

"Yes," I’d say, not certain whether to be proud of my younger brother’s popularity or ashamed of my relative social obscurity.

When I was 10 years old and my brother six, we each requested musical instruments for Christmas. I got an acoustic guitar, grew incredibly frustrated incredibly quickly, and quit after a few weeks of trying feebly to learn chords. My brother got a drum that Christmas. He started playing and never stopped. My brother is a brilliant musician. He can play almost anything on the drums and can even play some other instruments.

For reasons never fully explained or comprehended, my brother and I were split up when we were in high school. My brother was sent from the safe suburbs of Connecticut, which is as white as the North Pole, to live with my mother in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon, where he was one of the few unlucky white kids kicking around a decrepit and impoverished school system. Things were not much better after my brother, mother, and stepfather moved to Rockland County, New York.

Sent to detention in school one day, he was ordered to write something. He had a bottle of Snapple with him and wrote a letter to the company, praising their product. Snapple was running an advertising campaign featuring people who had written to the company and featured my brother in at least two commercials as "the boy in detention".

While dodging racist blacks and overzealous police, my brother played in a number of punk and hardcore bands. Among them were the  WhitePerverts (who are currently planning a reunion tour), Undermined, and This Way Out. His bands played lots of shows and developed dedicated followings. His bands were often on the same bill as more well-known bands such as Biohazard.

Jeff enlisted in the Marines. I got two letters from him during his stay there – they did not paint a pretty picture of life in the military. But again, Jeff persevered. In a few short months, my brother was turned into a complete killing machine. I drove in my beat-up monstrosity of a van to Parris Island to watch him graduate from boot camp.

"Mom, you don’t understand," he assured our worried mother, "if I get killed in action, you get $200,000." Such is the training on Parris Island that death becomes of little consequence to a Marine. The Marine Corps took my brother to Spain, Turkey, Greece, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Mostly though, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he collected speeding tickets in his spare time. He also took on the nickname "Shady", which has followed him since.

In the Marines my brother met Christian, a brilliant guitar player known in some circles as the Atomic Star Monkey. At Camp Lejeune they formed a band called Spork, and played parties and backwoods honky-tonks. They once fired a bass player in the middle of a show. At one show they handed out sporks to the audience and the plastic utensils flew through the air through the band’s set, which included furiously-played originals as well as covers that ranged from Green Day to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

After being honorably discharged from the Marines after achieving the rank of Sergeant, Jeff drove across the country to live in San Francisco. He joined a band called Dangle, which recorded some great music and put on some outstanding live shows before breaking up.

Christian moved to New York in the mild winter of 2002 to seek his fortune as a musician. I took pride in showing him around the city. He taught me how to play the bass. Christian can listen to a song and figure out how to play it on the guitar in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. When he arrived in New York, one of the first things he did was to teach himself to play the entire Rolling Stones’ album ‘Sticky Fingers’ on the guitar. He even figured out the alternate tunings that Keith Richards uses. He probably knows how to play more Rolling Stones songs than Keith Richards does at this point.

We drank cheap beer on the roof of his building on West 135th Street. We breathed in the Spring air, took in the sight of the George Washington Bridge lit up at night, and marveled at the expanse of city around us. We rejoiced in the promises that the city makes to hopeful artists, the dual promises of struggle and reward; of unequaled opportunity and opposition.

While Christian’s skills as a guitar player and connoisseur of gorgeous women remained strong, his luck in finding gainful employment was poor. He started working at Barcode, a Times Square monstrosity that blends overpriced tourist bar with video games. He was fired after a few weeks. He got a job waiting tables at an upscale steakhouse in Midtown. He was fired after a few days. He was also fired from the Cornelia Street Café and from a swanky Italian restaurant in the Meatpacking District. Christian was fired from more jobs his year in New York than most people hold in ten years. One job he held on to for a while until he quit was bartending at SoHa, an eclectic and unpretentious bar on 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

After losing his apartment that summer, Christian stayed with me for about a month. That was one of the most nerve-racking living arrangements I was every a party to. I got worried that he may never leave, and try to use some legal technicality or some arcane squatter’s law to stay in my apartment indefinitely. I thought I might have to kill him, chop him to pieces in my bathtub, and bury him in Inwood Hill Park. Luckily he found a place to live in Redhook, Brooklyn for a while, then moved in with his girlfriend back in the same building in West Harlem.

While the Atomic Star Monkey has suffered a lot of setbacks, rarely has there been a truer friend to be found. Perhaps it is his Midwest origins or his ability, like my brother, to make friends easily and make the best of things, but he has never lost his core of optimism and love of life and music.

After being laid off in San Francisco, my brother moved to New York and stayed with me for a month last fall. Christian few to San Francisco and drove across the country in my brother’s red pickup truck. They arrived at my apartment on a September afternoon, dirty and slaphappy. They had had a rough trip – they weren’t on speaking terms when they drove through Kansas. They cracked open a few beers. They combed their long hair over their faces, put on sunglasses and hats, and posed for a picture with my cat. It was a happy day.

Both Shady and the Atomic Star Monkey are dedicated to keeping potential glaucoma at bay with liberal doses of medicinal marijuana. One day while Christian was sleeping on my couch, I woke up and got dressed early one afternoon and went into my living room to start a day of job hunting

"What time is it?" Christian asked me, shaking off a night’s sleep.

I glanced at my watch. It was exactly noon. "It’s high noon," I said.

Christian grabbed his bong and fired it up, taking full advantage of my unintended pun. My brother had his watch alarm set to ring at 4:20 every afternoon. He didn’t always heed the alarm, but accessed enough ganja to make a Cheech and Chong movie.

While my brother’s brief stay in New York was in some ways nerve-racking, it was marked by the birth of GangsterOctopus, one of the best and shortest-lived punk bands New York has seen. In a few short rehearsals the band, which featured Jeff on drums and Christian on guitar, wrote some fantastic songs. The furious three-piece fought and left the rented rehearsal rooms a jumble of knocked over equipment, spilled beer, and pot smoke.

But the good times were not to last. My brother returned to San Francisco and Christian followed about six months later. I am certain to see them again, but wish they were back in New York.

I’ve seen them write amazing songs while toying around in a rehearsal studio. I have seen each of them play music until their limbs were cramped and their fingers were bleeding. I have seen each of them sell their belongings and drive across the country to make music. I have seen each of them survive poverty and heartbreak and prepare to survive much more. I have faith that I will see them reach their dreams and the world will know and love their music like I do.

You read about them here first.

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