By Tim Jackson
When you play music onstage with someone over the decades you know what they’re thinking with a single glance.
For 30 years Asa Brebner never missed a Thanksgiving at our house. He always brought a casserole of some kind. He loved to cook. On the Sunday, February 24, we watched the Academy Awards. He wasn’t particularly interested in the show; he went off into the kitchen to kvetch with Robin Lane and stir his black bean soup. We played in the Chartbusters band on and off for 40 years. That same week we rehearsed twice, played unplugged at Newbury Comics, and performed two sold out shows in support of a 3-CD retrospective collection of our past work. The band meant a lot to a surprising number of people. Exactly one week later I was vacationing in Mexico when I received a phone call from Boston musician Peter Bell: “What’s going on?” “What,” I asked. “Asa died.” He was 65 years old.
When you play music onstage with someone over the decades you know what they’re thinking with a single glance. We performed hundreds of times together in venues of every size. He was sometimes frustrated that we were revisiting past glories. His own songwriting was brilliant: 7 CDs with songs that told tales about frustrated love, sexual yearning, family, human foibles and struggles. And one children’s record called Bramblejam. The songs were roots rock & roll and gentle ballads delivered with dry wit and surging guitar solos. I didn’t play on many of the recordings. We had divergent careers. But in the last few years we reunited onstage, bonding over family while reflecting on aging in the music business. He wrote songs filled with self-lacerating wit.
Let me tell another story
Of a faithful earthbound glory
She was in local girly bar
But when she stepped out on the stage
An angel from a bygone age
The sun rose up in her face and hair
Not worried ‘bout her reputation
There was no humiliation
She had loads of dignity and pride
I want to be your friend
I want to be your friend
Asa and I shared stories of road weariness and musical exhilaration. In his late ’50s, with Laurie Ray, he fathered gorgeous twin boys, Django and Bowdie, who were the light of his life. That, as much as anything, brought us close again. When my daughter, Molly, was three she called Asa ‘her first boyfriend.’ My son, Max, posted on Facebook that Asa was ‘our weirdest extended family member, the one who was the cool uncle, the artist, the rock star. You’ll always be part of us.” His paintings, sketches, and elaborately decorated guitars adorn the walls of our home.
His mystical vision of life was nourished by a voracious interest in literature and human nature. He had a rebel’s attitude towards what he saw as the absurdities of existence. There was rarely a topic he wasn’t familiar with and had an opinion on. Thousands of books are stored on shelves in his barns in New Hampshire, along with a mountain of ephemera gleaned from walking through yard sales and flea markets. These objects often adorned the many guitars and assemblages he created. A Paradise Club Gallery show featured his cartoonish sketches, accompanied by ironic philosophical quotes. There was a recently finished book and a flood of poetic ruminations on Facebook.
In the ’70s, Mickey Clean and the Mezz fed his anarchic style. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers also inspired his childlike imagination. He and Leroy Radcliff developed the jangling guitar textures of Robin Lane’s Chartbusters. His own bands employed a who’s who of local musicians. The list of his friends who recently passed must have troubled him: Andrew Mazzone, Lexa Williams, Alan Devine, Jim Mooradian, Mickey Clean, Jeff Thurber, and artist Stuart Cudlitz.
Despite hearty bouts of drinking, Brebner was always a faithful and beloved part of the close knit Cambridge music scene. Women were key players in his life, inspiring songs on the complexities of love and lust. For forty years he was devoted to his first girlfriend and confident, photographer Carol Fonde. Helanie Saad met him at 19 working at the Corners of the Mouth organic restaurant, and she introduced him to his first band, Mickey Clean and the Mezz, booking them at the Rathskeller, Boston’s premier punk club in the early days. He found crazy love with Texas native Lexa Willams. Robin Lane was a sister to us all. Brebner admired singer Andrea Gillis’s grit, Lorrie Sargent’s poetry and independence, Natalie Flanagan’s devotion. LiLi Cunningham, Stuart Cudlitz’s wife, affirmed his work as an artist. Roo Franzel was an anchor for his family, Suzanne Boucher was a counselor, Gwyneth Thomas gave him solace. Laurie Ray endured Brebner’s ups and downs and gave him the twin boys that were his greatest joy.
I never never treated you bad
You’re the best thing that I ever had
I never never treated you rough
You can’t say I don’t love you enough
Love Only Makes the World Go Round
She wanted something not quite so profound
Love Only Makes the World Go Round
— Love Only Makes the World Go Round
Three days before our final weekend we once again swam laps at the YMCA pool in Charlestown, followed by a long lunch where we rambled on at length about life, love, friendship, family, music, ambition, age, and the future, with endless retelling of episodes from our humorous and bawdy past. He could be dead serious one second and cynically wry the next. He had an artist’s eye, continually fascinated by life’s paradoxes. There was nothing we couldn’t talk about. At this point in his life he was poised for a new chapter, one that filled him with anxiety but that he approached with determination. He had plans to convert his farm into an arts collaborative, had completed a semi-autobiographical book with illustrations, was close to finishing up a CD revival of the music of Phil Haynen, and relished the love of his boys.
On stage that final weekend, Brebner seemed distant, but played well. He went off to New Hampshire to do more work on the illustrations for his book. His heart gave while he was working; there were pots of soup cooking on the stove. I returned from Mexico and went from planning a Chartbusters reunion to planning a memorial. On our front porch was the container of black beans and rice from Academy Awards night. I had forgotten to return it.
Dishes in the dirty sink
Counting pennies for a drink
A little kid got wise and he hid his piggy bank
I caught him throwing cherry bombs
I caught him pulling false alarms
He’s a little too little too young for jail
But all the same . . .
I lost the grocery money on a football bet
I lost the grocery money on a football bet
Take my love if you want it
Or I’ll find someone new
Don’t think my love was a weak one
But I’ve cried enough about you
— Ragged Religion
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.
Beth Harrington says
Very nicely done, Tim. All the complexities and the love.
Paula Rhodes says
A beautiful testimony to beloved Asa. I knew him as a young man, not yet developed. In the 70s I was in San Francisco and missed the punk period. Frankly, I rediscovered Asa on FaceBook in his brilliant, provocative, sassy, poetic musings. They were always insightful, sacred and profane. We also exchanged some emails. He is one of the last of a group of old Cambridge friends who knew each other as friends of the Burden family. Leslie and Robert brought him into our rowdy family of young art students. A couple of us are still close and we will never forget Asa Brebner. Thank you, Tim, for this testament to Asa who was clearly one of your most cherished comrades. His writing has made me want to write again.
You’re a genius Tim. Thank you for this. Thank you for crediting all the women in Asa’s life and thank you for being such a wonderful friend to him then and now.
Sending much love and thanks for sharing your friendship.
Amy M Gallagher says
Thank you, Tim. So many colorful memories, we will all share stories for years. Asa loved and appreciated all of the women in his life, evidently a wise man since boyhood. And he was such a *guy*. I never observed competitive male chest-beating, but did see a lot of love.
I am glad for Asa and all the people whose lives intersected with his for the music, the fun, adventures, hard lessons, and forward-looking hopes we have shared.
I first met him when he was working at the Corners of the Mouth with Michael Cleanthes, Robert Burden, and Katya Slive, who has survived them all. He was just 20, still recovering from his misadventure in South America. It was good to follow him through the years as he made his way full circle around the music biz, coming back home to play his own songs and expand his artistic creations from gig flyers to published cartoons to passionately colorful multi-dimensional fabulosities.
Asa’s hope to open Gepetto’s Barn as an arts collective may or may not be realized, but we can each keep his inspiration and support close as we continue on along in our own directions.
I wish comfort for all who loved Asa. We have only to listen to a few of his to hear and see him engaging with use personally, and to see through his eyes.
Love to all.
Amy Matilda says
*… a few of his songs
Gerald Peary says
Lovely piece, Tim. I never saw Asa play since probably 1979 and last week. So glad I heard a few incredible guitar licks and one song where he sang lead. But, yes, he was a bit distant in his last night as a Chartbuster,
Liz Borden says
Thanks Tim. This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing this with us. He was a special guy. Loved by so many.
Sheldon Mirowitz says
Wonderful Tim. Thanks for this –
Sadie Dudley says
Thank you for such a beautiful tribute.
Asa was the most creative person I knew. When the going got rough there was no better person
in this world to talk to. Sweet, sweet, sweet. He was as solid as a human could be. I can’t even see what I’m writing through tears. I always loved Angela, to read the words is so fine…
Mr. Curt says
Lovely remembrances and full of the humanity he embraced. We shared stages together in our formative years – we have his construction art – we have his albums – we had a distant friendship renewed whenever he popped up on a local stage or at a gallery. At least for a while, if not forever…..
Loreen Ray says
Oh, dear Tim, Perfect, so …. good. I can’t write, I can’t think, your words have slayed me.
Thank you for writing this. and sharing your heart
The lyrics you chose…. the sweet memories
This is a beautiful tribute to the brother I know you’ll always miss. Thank you for the loving insight, Tim.
You nailed it Tim…a perfect snapshot of an ephemeral soul. Thanks
Jennet Cook says
There is a hole in our world. Thank you for such an loving remembrance.
Paul Payton says
Tim, I never knew Asa, although you introduced me briefly when The Chartbusters played in New Haven back “When Things Go Wrong” was going right. But I “get” him through your eloquent writing and understand and appreciate the closeness you felt. I just tripped over this while searching for something else on the net, and I’m sad to hear of his passing. May you find comfort in his memory and the good times you shared.
Rob Amaral The Fathoms says
Nice Job Tim.. I will ‘raise a glass to you and Asa in the next SALOON I am in ” Frankie Blandino got a VM from him the day before he moved on… he’s pretty upset about it all..
Catherine Vaughan says
Thank you! A beautiful remembrance
Asa was a high school sweetheart, after that we had our ups and downs. I eventually saw him as a true renaissance man, brilliant musician, artist, who could quote Kierkegaard and TS Eliot, but also fix a broken toilet. He seemed to find his true joy with his sons.
bruce courcier says
Nice tribute, Tim.
Tom "Satch" Kerans says
The first time I met Asa was when my band, The Catalinas, opened up for Robin Lane and the Chartbusters at Grovers in Beverly. He was easy to talk to and, in my mind, these guys (and gal, sorry Robin!) were flat out legends. But they were all real friendly and took the time to talk to us. What I remember about Asa was that he was actually listening to what I was saying not just nodding his head and giving lip service. A couple of years later we were both one of 10 finalists at an ASCAP songwriting contest at Spit on Landsdowne St. Greg Hawkes of the Cars was the moderator in front of a panel of judges, one of whom was Andy Mendhelson (a smug arrogant asshlole;) another was a guy named Frankie Previte (I think) who wrote the theme for Dirty Dancing- he was exceedingly arrogant and condescending. I was upbeat and sightly star struck. But Asa seemed to know what we were in for even before they played our songs over the sound system; before the judges tore into our music. He approached with the event with the correct amount of jaded cynicism it deserved- neither of us won. I pissed him off a couple of times and he let me know it right away. Once when I was drunk and got up and sang backups on “Jacks On Drugs” without being asked, and another time, when I was also drunk, after he got The Catalinas an opening slot for Mickey Clean and the Mezz at the Rat. I think I asked him to get me another gig and he snapped, ” I just got you one”. Again I was drunk, and being an alcoholic I held on to the resentment I felt from those remarks for years. Now that I am sober I can reflect on these times better and I can reflect on my alcoholism and my twenty-nine years of sobriety. He was right to put me in my place. The last time I saw him was up on Cape Ann, where I live, not even a month before he died. We both played at a benefit at the Gloucester Cinema and had a nice chat; mostly about Phil Haynen who, years ago, had written a song for the Catalinas (“Silhouette” which I have resolved to record) and whom I knew because we crossed paths on the North Shore where we both lived. Asa nursed a beer but didn’t seem to be overdoing it. Later when he got up on stage I heard him say, “This is for Satch, is he still here?”, “Yeah”, I bellowed from the back, right before he launched into “Jacks On Drugs”. I didn’t jump on stage this time…but I wish I had.
Ron Scarlett says
I saw the very first Robin Lane & The Charbusters gig at Jonathan Swift’s in Cambridge in 1978 and I saw the last that fateful Sunday afternoon at the Burren a few weeks ago. The Alpha and the Omega, not to mention hundreds inbetween. Asa was always something of an enigma to me. But a fantastic sounding enigma. Just as rock stars were once supposed to be.
Kathy Lyons says
Asa was my ‘brother in law’, for many years, and yet, I learned so much more about him in the past few days, especially with this tribute.
I hope Bowdie and Django will read these comments some day and understand how special their dad was to so many people.
When Lori was pregnant with them and on bedrest in the hospital, I remember he used to come in and play his guitar and sing his Fub song to them.
Praying for all of them.
Rest In Peace, Asa.
michael kaplan says
I first met Asa when he was at the corners of the mouth health food store. That was about 46 years ago.We became friends and outlaws and shared many experiences that I can’t even bring up since I don’t know the statute of limitations in our current Orwellian society. I used to bring him bags of plastic toy soldiers and tanks and jeeps which he would melt onto canvas for paintings. Early on at a concert with ASA and the chartbusters I met my bride to be at Jonathan Swifts . I pulled him aside and asked him if he could dedicate “when things go wrong” to Luann and Michael. When he introduced the song he said “this song goes out to Joanne and Michael” Later he told me he did it on purpose because he sensed things would go wrong so he got her name wrong deliberately.. He was right. What a wit and sense of humor. His sarcasm was mostly kind hearted and his sardonic viewfinder was always spot on.He was A Renaissance man in every sense of the word. I agonized over watching him battle his demons(we all had them in different degrees and genres) and I was so happy about the birth of his children because he seemed to have even more of a reason to stick around for a long time. The news of his death was devastating . I still haven’t gotten over the shock.