In her outstanding memoir Conversations With My Dead Rock Star Best Friend, author Susan Daley channels ceiling chimes to facilitate her remarkable conversations with deceased bassist Howie Epstein, a member of the epic band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for twenty years.
Written in a unique, stream-of-consciousness style, Daley recounts — often in achingly emotional detail — her close relationship with Epstein, who died of drug-related causes in February, 2003.
With often dark humor, Daley recalls how she begins conducting short dialogues with Epstein’s spirit by asking him to ring the chimes once for yes and twice for no. Soon, however, this limited method of questioning her friend proves problematic, so she switches to another technique: letting his spiritual essence flow through her left hand directly onto paper.
When that doesn’t work, she whips out her laptop and things really get interesting. The anecdotes flow and a picture of their complicated relationship emerges, along with fascinating glimpses into the rocker’s dysfunctional life.
His memory of events is sometimes skewed. Epstein reminds her, for example, of “all the times they shared heroin.” She responds that it was only twice in ten years. “Puhleeze!” she exclaims.
She recalls an incident when Tom Petty was reportedly trying to teach Epstein a lesson regarding his drug use by not inviting him to a studio session with Johnny Cash. Confused as to Eptein’s absence, Cash calls him during the session and he hustles over.
The troubled musician expresses intense remorse about asking the author to have sex in the bathroom backstage at a show in Toronto. (For the record, she refused.)
And other titillating tidbits surface as the singular conversation in the author’s bedroom becomes telepathic: Howie “talks” to the author in her mind and she answers back, making for some hilarious repartee and reminiscences.
Christmas Eve, 1994. Howie is angry about the final mix on the John Prine album The Missing Years, which he produced. He threatens to have it remastered or he will remove his name from the credits. The author dissuades him, however, and the album goes on to win a Grammy.
Finally, there are fond memories of cruising the vinyl at Tower Records, then picking up Brit chocolate bars and rushing home to listen to the albums they’d bought into the wee hours. And then, of course, there are the countless hours together at an L.A. dog park, watching their beloved pooches play and sharing their many private thoughts.
This is, first and foremost, a touching tribute to Epstein, and to the impact his friendship had on the author and vice versa. She was, in fact, one of his closest friends, and she still mourns his loss to this day. This book is a testament to that devotion — a friendship brutally severed by drugs but often buoyed by hope.
Her infectious, self-deprecating wit runs rampant through this piece, infusing it with refreshing candor.
In one particular passage, she refers to the astonishing number of friends whom she has had to bury and mourn:
“It’s a wonder anybody wants to be my friend,” she says. “If I weren’t me, and I met me, and I found out how many dead friends I had, I’d run for the hills lest I be next on the list.”
Who can resist that kind of honesty — particularly in a friend? You as a reader probably couldn’t. And, apparently, neither could Howie Epstein.
Five stars to this courageous piece of writing. Its narrative style is totally nontraditional. But the wry humor and sheer sincerity of the piece will keep you riveted to the very end. Bravo, Ms. Daley, for a memorable memoir.
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