I once lunched, unknowingly and somewhat alarmedly, with a late Seattle punk icon. About a year after my dad moved from Washington to Southern California, he came back up with a U-Haul truck to retrieve his remaining stuff. Part of the job involved (long story) picking up some bottles of wine being held deep in the spidery cellar of a Tudor-ish house in the city. We'd arranged with the woman who owned the house to stop by, eat some sandwiches and snag the wine before rolling on south.
When she invited us in, I caught partial sight of what appeared to be an old scarecrow propped humorously in a television-facing recliner. But then, unsettlingly, the scarecrow stood up, cutting a looming, gangly figure made even more intimidating by an oversized bolero hat. The woman introduced the entity as her son, Chris.
Chris, 37 if he was a day, had a dress sense of which I'd seen less intense versions before — I seem to recall the hat being accompanied by strangely-colored track pants and a t-shirt advertising Motörhead's Bastards — but his demeanor was something else entirely. He oscillated between — jeez, what even to call the endpoints? — incoherence and catatonia. As we ate our sandwiches, Chris said such bizarre things in such a bizarre manner that they've barely found lasting purchase in my memory. His mom's lack of a visible reaction indicated that this wasn't at all out of the ordinary.
But boy, he was a friendly fellow. You wouldn't expect it from someone who looks scary, acts scary and periodically nods off at the table, but Chris held to an uncommonly high standard of courtesy. He asked me about the radio work I was involved in. He mentioned going to the same middle school as me. He told me stories about his band, which, as accurately as I could decipher, was called either "Pink Cocktail", "Pain Cadillac", "Pink Cadillac" or "Pain Cocktail".
Turns out "Pain Cocktail" was the name. I found this out upon reading the flurry of memorials, recently posted, to Chris "Slats" Harvey. The dude was beloved — practically a celebrity! Or at least he was a Hillebrity. As in, he hung out, visibly, in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill all the time, drinking, smoking, chatting, getting into shows for free. "The Mayor of Capitol Hill", some called him. "More New York Dolls than the (surviving) New York Dolls," one wag said. Though to some degree an actual musician — much has been made of his time with a future member of Guns N' Roses in the early-80s punk outfit Silly Killers — he fit the profile of an urban eccentric to a T.
A Wired piece on the internet's enthusiasm for urban eccentricity holds Slats up as a prime exemplar of the lifestyle:
Seattle Notables tracks local residents like Slats, aka "the Original Hipster," a quirky musician and nightclub aficionado noticeable for his Ramones-esque leather outfit and scraggly mop of brown hair hidden under a broad-brimmed black hat.Funny thing is, despite my penchant for observing and tracking Santa Barbara's own tiny population of eccentrics — the fanny-packed conspiracy nut who asks strident, rambling questions at public events; the shoeless, bearded Asian dude in flowing white robes; the sad, silent fat man who turns up at all the galleries — I'd never noticed Slats in my twelve years of close proximity to Seattle. His many, many fans report near-daily Slats sightings all the way back to the early eighties: he was always wearing similar black, leather-y, punkish outfits — the home attire I saw was apparently a rarity — always kickin' back, always smiling.
"You see him all over town, at every bar," says McLeod. "He's kind of like a Where's Waldo."
[ ... ]
Slats, who is also the subject of a Where's Slats? forum on the website of alternative weekly The Stranger, seems somewhat put off by the attention, but has developed a healthy, celebrity-style tolerance for his pesky fan base.
"It's kind of strange when I go in a bar and everyone's taking a picture of me, or I walk down the street and they're yelling my name," says Slats, whose real name is Chris. "I'm just living my life and all of a sudden it's like, 'Whoa, what's going on?'"
Though he preferred Capitol Hill, where I rarely went — my fabulous self back then might have thought it too grimy, even by Seattle standards — you'd think I would have spotted him in one of my weekly trips to the University District. And even if I did see him, chances are he wouldn't have caught my attention; when I was in high school, nothing — nothing — interested me less than "punk rock." I loathed the noise, the sloppiness, the pointlessly rebellious ethos. I understand now that it's all about the culture, but I didn't then.
This speaks to the fact that, despite having lived right next to the place during pretty much all of my formative years, I never really appreciated Seattle's subcultural richness. I racked up no small amount of time within city limits, but most of my missions were in-and-out: you know, get a Primo Burger, see what's playing at the Egyptian, pick up CDs on the Ave, hit Scarecrow for some Kitano movies, done — back to the Eastside. (Even so, the mere recounting of those targets brings back many a good memory.) I hardly ever explored, much less opened the door to that sweet, sweet randomness I so desire today.
Were I to return to Seattle — not in the cards, but let's pretend — I'm sure I'd experience it with the heightened awareness for urban weirdness one can only cultivate by rarely going outside a city like Santa Barbara for the better part of a decade. Every character I'd run into would probably set off a post of this length. And if Los Angeles turns out to be the next stop — much more likely — I'd have a surfeit of eccentrics to observe, from nationally known names like Dennis Woodruff and Angelyne to your garden-variety Venice Beach weirdos.
Increasingly, I think one could do a lot worse than becoming one of these "characters," people essentially known for their unconventional appearance and/or occupations, their lack of any of the usual life's infrastructure and the public profile these qualities bring. Do these eccentrics get made fun of? Sure. Do they enjoy the comforts of normality? Nah. But the point is that people let them in places without charge and make entire forum threads dedicated to sighting them and speculating on their backgrounds. Could the fellows coding applets or filling reinsurance forms ever say the same about themselves?
I don't know — perhaps I don't want to know — what it says about me that I look up to the likes of Slats, Angelyne and Asian Jesus more than I do the average upstanding contributor to society. But if I get tired of the essaying, the broadcasting, the filming, the videoing and the sounding, I guess my only recourse will be to become one of these urban characters. I don't mind this. In fact, I accept this. I'm not yet sure how I'll construct my outlandish look, but given the degree of "That guy? I've see him around all the time! You mean he's real?" that Madelaine heard from people when we first got together, I'm evidently well on my way.
Yet there are pitfalls. I'd been wondering what was wrong with Slats from the moment I met him — well before I knew he was even called Slats. As lovable as he seems to have been, he struck me as an utter mental and physical shambles. You have to kind of piece his story together — no one source seems to know it all — but a blog post from Duff McKagan gives a broad suggestion:
Chris Harvey (aka Slats) died last Saturday of complications due to a broken hip. Unfortunately, drugs had claimed him long before, and held him. This is not meant to be a crude or heartless comment directed at a man who is no longer here to defend himself. I loved that guy like a brother once upon a time, back when the playing field of youth was even and green and soft and we were just opening our eyes to what was possible and available in life.Keith Richards stands as living-ish proof that you can make heroin your life and still do alright. Medically speaking, the evidence suggests that it doesn't even directly damage you, not in the way other worst-of-the-worst drugs do; the harm you incur comes as a result of constantly going to preposterous, dangerous lengths to get it after you're hooked. As I understand it, Slats' odd manner was primarily a Sly Stone-like condition brought on by the drugs that control the effects of the violent vicissitudes — and I've heard a lot about this specific case, but none of it's particularly substantiatable — of an addict's life.
He was a guy who all the rest of us guys wanted to be like. He had the good looks and charm that all the girls fawned over. He never gloated or preened in his status as the coolest guy in the room, and that very thing made him seem even cooler.
[ ... ]
Slats never was one of the most skilled guitar players, but he somehow crafted his own sound back in our day. When he formed the Silly Killers in 1982, his sound and sense of songwriting were really starting to take shape. Their 7" single, "Knife Manual," is a classic. I don't think it was too much longer before he started to dabble with heroin. He never found his musical form again, and that is sad.
So, uh, stay off the junk, kids. I guess that's the moral. No prizes for guessing which song I listened to while editing this.