The place was the East Village, Avenue A to be exact, and on a drizzly night in 1984, I found myself in some dive digging a cat named Eddy Dixon. Eddy posed behind a guitar that was tricked-out with dice, his hair coiffed into a DA and he wore a pencil mustache of the sleaziest Baltimore purity. His combo ran through rockabilly standards and originals that sounded like standards, but my most vivid memory was of the guitar player. His sound was gritty, but with feel and swing. He cracked jokes between songs and got off a wise-ass remark for every word Eddy said.
Sometimes the best you can do is just brush your teeth and go to bed. Tomorrow’s another day, pallie. Alright?
I was a college dropout, former American bum in Paris, a reader of treatises on Italian neorealism, deadly earnest about everything. Who was this guy? I had no idea what to make of him.
It wasn’t until later that I learned his name: Adam Roth.
Adam died on December 16, 2015, at the Manhattan home of his mother Caroline and father Arnold, the cartoonist. He was, as the obituary phrase would have it, surrounded by family and friends, and was borne into the next world on a tidal wave of love, the likes of which I have never witnessed. I was so pleased to call him my friend.
I lost track of Adam in the late ‘80s. We weren’t swimming in the same pond. My street life was in faded bloom; I chased drinks and I chased drugs, while Adam, it turned out, was getting sober.
We realigned in 1990, on the rooftop of a Union Square nightclub called Peggy Sue’s, where everybody, just everybody, used to hang out. A handful of us stood in a semi-circle distilling our stand-up routines, but Adam’s timing and delivery were diamond-like, and he got the biggest laughs. Of course he did. Adam Roth was the funniest guy of all time, and there was no second place.
So he was sober, although I can’t say I knew what that meant. I knew he quit drinking and getting high. Whatever.
And although we connected through humor, and our love of Rat Pack panache, Adam’s first love was music. His chops were undeniable that first night I blundered across him, and he got better from there, with technique, but beyond that, with taste. He was in the pocket on every rock n’ roll genre he played, and he played them all.
I was nothing but a listener, a fan, but Adam got the attention of some of the biggest names in the music business. Among others too numerous to name here, Adam gigged with the Del Fuegos, the Jim Carroll Band, Garland Jeffries, and right up until the time he got sick, with Merseybeat legend Billy J. Kramer, and joined by his brother Charly Roth and bassist Alec Morton, with the Liza Colby Sound.
In the late 1970s, Adam, a graduate of Princeton High School in New Jersey, attended Emerson College in Boston. He met an influential group of comics that included Steven Wright and Denis Leary, and collaborated with Leary for the rest of his life, doing music for the television shows Rescue Me and most recently, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll>
Adam worked jobs like doorman and bartender to help make a living, and as I hurtled toward the end of my own drinking career, I would go and cadge drinks from him at the Soho restaurant where he worked. One foot crossed over the other, leaning against the back bar, he had this anxious habit of lighting matches and then tossing them, one by one, into a sink.
Eventually my own time came, and I got sober, too. Adam was with me every inch of the way, and I was dumbfounded the night he came to visit me with another permanent member of my personal pantheon, George. About the two most righteous guys on the planet took time out of their lives to check up on me; me, manning the bar in some horrible gin-soaked hell.
The coolest, hottest, hippest guy in any room, not to mention the sharpest dressed, Adam and I became members of the same recovery community and I saw him just about every day, around the clubhouses and coffeehouses and venues, at his job, at my job, at the jobs where we worked together. I took my measure of myself against him. I determined that he was everything I was not.
Everybody in those days was up late. We all were. Adam was having trouble with a girl, or I was, and we conducted 3 AM commiserations; the other guy would pick up the phone after a ring and a half, wide-awake. One night, when he was doing better than me (and almost anyone was) he listened for a while and said, “Sometimes the best you can do is just brush your teeth and go to bed. Tomorrow’s another day, pallie. Alright?”
In spite of my many lifestyle minuses, I never drifted too far away from my fitness routine, and in the late '90s, Adam joined the gym where I was a member. Along with a guy named Raz, whose athletic attire threatened Adam’s, we pushed each other through routines, I in a state of sadistic glee as the beet-faced, bulging-muscled Adam tried to keep pace. Finally! Something I was better at than he was!
Life never got in the way of our friendship, and I can’t remember exchanging any cross words with him, but he pursued his interests and I pursued mine. He married Melissa, a girl that I was always close with, whom I had in fact known before I knew Adam, and they seemed to recede into life on the Lower East Side. Every once in a while, I’d make it out to a gig, or we’d cross paths at some one-off job, pick it up where we left off, and return to our respective boundaries until next time. Something, though, didn’t seem right. I didn’t quite know what it was.
About 10 years ago, I got a phone call. Adam was on the line. “Listen, Pete, I’ve gotta tell you something. I’ve been taking all kinds of pills. I’m working three or four doctors and four or five pharmacies and I don’t know how long this has been going on or when it started, but I’m not sober anymore, okay? I’m not sober.” So there was that.
Melissa helped shuck Adam off to rehab, and it took about a year for him to regain any semblance of his former self. But he did. With the aid of that same sober community, now grown larger, he got better. Again. He began volunteering with a non-profit group called Road Recovery, a collection of entertainment professionals that work with teens at risk of addiction. The work was immensely gratifying.
Without talking too much out of school, Adam and Melissa went separate ways, but the sphere around this magnetic man continued to expand as (paradoxically) he pulled more people in, those who were newer to recovery, like Eli and Jennie and Geoff; people from the old days who continued to bask in the glow of that unstoppable charisma, Fionn, the brothers Karl and Mark, and Scottish Mark, and the fine Geoff O’Sullivan who is not sober because he doesn’t need to be, a man among men, a winner, a mensch. Jimmy, the strongest most capable man we know, who inhabits a pantheon all his own. Liza Colby. His oldest friends stayed his friends. Denis Leary. Matt Dillon. Cavo, keeping tabs from Hong Kong. Eddie Brill. Chris Phillips. And Marta, with whom Adam has a son, five-year-old Charlie Ringo Roth.
In October of this year, after some aches and pains that wouldn’t go away, Adam was dealt a brutal diagnosis. He was suffering from Stage IV bile duct cancer, and the best doctors in the country were sorry, but they couldn’t do much for him. The news landed like a falling crane on Adam’s entire social circle, not to mention his family, not to mentionMarta, or little Charlie.
With almost no available options, Adam followed in the footsteps of Steve McQueen, one of his idols, and sought alternative medical treatment in Mexico. The very idea gave him hope. I suppose that’s what they sell. But once the decision had been taken, he launched into an excited vision of how he was going to get well, buy some new suits, climb back up on stage, and wow the young hotties. I never loved him more than I did at that moment. My boy.
The end came with a quickness and savagery. I tried to see him as frequently as my responsibilities, and all of the other people who so desperately wanted to be with him, would allow. I had the feeling he would go on the day that he did, and I held his hand and told him that Eddy Dixon story. I took my index finger and made the sign of the cross on his forehead, and as valiantly as I have fought to not make this about me, this was about me. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t believe in the Trinity. I do. And then I kissed him goodbye.
This is too sad a note to end on, so I’ll tell one more Adam Roth story. On the day after Thanksgiving, Marta brought home a wheelchair because Adam was having such a terrible time walking. It was one of those balmy autumn afternoons that we’ve enjoyed all season, so his brother Charly and the strong and capable Jimmy and myself rounded up little Charlie and put Adam in the wheelchair. He was stressed about his Mary Janes.
“These shoes okay for the wheelchair?”
We assured him that he had selected ideal wheelchair shoes, a buckskin-finished, double-strapped pair that honestly did look smashing with the jeans he was wearing. That was Adam Roth.
So long, pallie. See you on the flip side.